Classification of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral Palsy is a broad term that encompasses a range of effects on the way a body functions – both in terms of the type of effects and their severity. If you are the parent of a child who has been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, you are likely hungry for information about what the condition truly means for your child’s day-to-day life – and your child’s future. Doctors may have used a number of terms to describe your child’s Cerebral Palsy. Unfortunately, those terms may not provide much clarity. This resource’s goal is to provide insight into how Cerebral Palsy is classified and what those classifications mean for your child.
Types of Cerebral Palsy
  • Bilateral, Quadriplegia, and Diplegia
  • Ataxic
  • Athetoid
  • Unilateral Cerebral Palsy
  • Spasticity
No Uniform Classification System for Cerebral Palsy

Despite ongoing research into Cerebral Palsy and its effects, there still is not a single classification system that captures every aspect of the condition and its severity. This means that healthcare providers, schools, government agencies and others must use a number of different – and occasionally overlapping – systems to describe an individual case of Cerebral Palsy.

The classification systems look at different aspects of Cerebral Palsy, how the condition affects the individual’s functioning, and the amount of impairment the individual experiences.

Classification of Cerebral Palsy

When discussing your child’s Cerebral Palsy with doctors and other healthcare providers, you have probably heard a number of technical descriptions. The following breaks down the main ways in which Cerebral Palsy is classified.

Severity – This classification system makes broad generalizations about the severity of an individual’s Cerebral Palsy. It uses the categories of Mild, Moderate, Severe and No CP. While this system may provide a general description of a child’s Cerebral Palsy, it is generally considered inaccurate because it lacks clear, objective definitions. Doctors may disagree about which category accurately describes an individual case.
Topographical Distribution – This system focuses on the parts of the body affected by Cerebral Palsy, and whether the body part is weakened (paresis) or paralyzed (plegia). The common categories of this classification system include: monoplegia/monoparesis, diplegia/diparesis, hemiplegia/hemiparesis, paraplegia/paraparesis, triplegia/triparesis, double hemiplegia/double hemiparesis, tetraplegia/tetraparesis, quadriplegia/quadriparesis, and pentaplegia/pentaparesis.

Motor Function – The focus of this classification system is how the brain damage that causes Cerebral Palsy affects the functioning and tone of the muscles. The main division is between spastic Cerebral Palsy (increased muscle tone) and non-spastic Cerebral Palsy (decreased or fluctuating muscle tone). These two main categories are further refined by classification into subgroups such as hypertonic, hypotonic, pyramidal, extrapyramidal, ataxic, and dyskinetic. Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy is broken into more specific conditions, such as athetoid, dystonic, chorea and choreoathetoid.

Gross Motor Function Classification System – The closest to a universal, all-encompassing classification system for Cerebral Palsy, this system applies to all forms of Cerebral Palsy. It assigns a “level” to the degree of impairment caused by Cerebral Palsy. There are five levels, with Level I indicating no impairment in the ability to walk, and Level V indicating severe limitations to muscle control in the head and trunk. The system is intended to convey how self-sufficient a child can be in different settings. It is also linked to the child’s age.
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