What Is Athetoid Cerebral Palsy? Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Athetoid cerebral palsy is a type of cerebral palsy, a neurological condition associated with movement disorders and developmental delays. Proper diagnosis and treatment can reduce complications and improve quality of life for children with the condition. Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of neurological disorders that affect a person’s posture, balance, and movements. In some cases, children with the condition may have developmental or intellectual delays.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CP is the most common movement disability found in children.

This article defines athetoid cerebral palsy and its types. It also discusses the symptoms, treatment, and potential complications of the condition.

What is athetoid cerebral palsy?

Mother and young child playing together
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Cerebral palsy (CP) is a permanent neurological disorder. It results from damage or improper development in the part of the brain that controls movement. CP occurs before, during, or soon after birth.

Children with CP typically have trouble controlling their muscle movements. In some cases, they may also have other developmental delays.

Several factors can cause brain injuries that may lead to CP, including:

  • fevers
  • strokes
  • infections
  • head injuries
  • gene mutations
  • abnormally formed blood vessels
  • complications from sickle cell disease
  • blood clotting problems, causing bleeding in the brain 
  • heart defects that decrease blood flow to the brain
  • lack of oxygen in the brain during pregnancy or birth

Athetoid CP, also called dyskinetic CP, is the second most common type of cerebral palsy. It causes uncontrollable movements of the:

  • hands
  • arms
  • feet
  • legs

Children with athetoid CP usually do not have intellectual delays.

What are the types of athetoid cerebral palsy?

Doctors classify athetoid, or dyskinetic, cerebral palsy (CP) based on the most frequent type of movement.

  • Choreoathetotic CP: This is a mixture of chorea and athetosis. Chorea refers to rapid, irregular movements. Athetosis refers to slow, writhing movements. Children may alternate between the two, and intense emotions may induce or increase these movements.
  • Dystonic CP: This refers to a series of repetitive movements, such as twisting, that go on for long periods. The movements may be fast or slow. Spontaneous movements or emotions may trigger or increase the movements.

Spastic cerebral palsy vs. athetoid cerebral palsy

Spastic and athetoid cerebral palsy are both subtypes of cerebral palsy.

Spastic CP is the most common type of CP. It usually occurs when an infant is born early. The brain develops improperly or receives a small amount of oxygen for moderate periods of time.

Athetoid CP usually occurs in full-term infants. Typically, it results when the brain is completely deprived of oxygen for a brief time. Symptoms are generally more severe than other forms of CP.

What are the signs and symptoms of athetoid cerebral palsy?

The symptoms of cerebral palsy (CP) will vary depending on the severity of the brain damage.

CP does not worsen over time. However, symptoms may change as the person grows and develops.

All children with CP will have difficulties with posture and movements. They may also have problems with their spine or joints, such as scoliosis or contractures. A child with mild CP may walk with an atypical gait. With severe CP, they may not be able to walk at all or may need special equipment.

Athetoid CP causes uncontrollable movements of the limbs, hands, or feet. As a result, children with CP may have trouble sitting up straight or walking. In addition, they may make faces or drool. They may also have difficulty swallowing or sucking if the facial and tongue nerves are affected.

Intellectual development is not as common in athetoid CP as in other forms. However, children may experience other symptoms, such as:

  • seizures
  • vision, speech, or hearing problems
  • learning disabilities
  • motor development delays
  • limited spontaneous movement
  • variable muscle tone, from tense to floppy
  • infant reflexes that persist longer than normal, such as:
    • sucking
    • startling
  • abnormal posturing, such as:
    • head persistently turned to one side
    • unusual flexion in the spine and shoulders

What are treatments for athetoid cerebral palsy?

There is no cure for cerebral palsy (CP), including athetoid CP. Instead, treatments focus on improving the child’s physical condition and quality of life.

A team of doctors and other healthcare professionals will work together to treat and monitor the condition.

Treatments for athetoid CP may include:

  • speech therapy
  • physical therapy
  • behavioral therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • deep brain stimulation (DBS)
  • support equipment, such as braces
  • surgery to correct skeletal or muscular abnormalities
  • medication to control pain, muscle tension, or seizures
  • feeding tubes if the child cannot suck or swallow safely

How do doctors diagnose athetoid cerebral palsy?

Your pediatrician will examine your child and ask about the pregnancy, birth, and family history of neurological issues. In addition, they will track the child’s growth and development over time. If they suspect cerebral palsy (CP), they may order tests such as an MRI or developmental screening.

Developmental screening is a short test to see if a child has any specific developmental delays. After this screening, your doctor will begin the process of developmental evaluation. This helps them diagnose the type of CP and determine the appropriate treatment and care.

Classifying the type of CP can be a complex process. The American Academy of Neurology recommends that the child see a child neurologist (CN),  neurodevelopmentalist (NDD), or other specialist with similar expertise.

What are the potential complications of athetoid cerebral palsy?

Respiratory failure due to aspiration or pneumonia is the most common cause of death with cerebral palsy (CP). Other complications can include:

  • depression
  • sleep disturbance
  • being underweight 
  • neurobehavioral disorders

Often, children with CP will never be able to live independently due to their condition and need for care.

What are support resources for parents and caregivers of children with athetoid cerebral palsy?

Many resources are available to help children with cerebral palsy (CP) and their caregivers. These organizations can provide information and help you cope with the daily challenges of living with CP.

Resources for CP include:

United Cerebral Palsy

My Cerebral Palsy Child

My Child at Cerebral Palsy.org

The Cerebral Palsy Foundation

What is the outlook for children with athetoid cerebral palsy?

The outlook for children with athetoid cerebral palsy (CP) depends on the severity of the condition. It can also depend on whether there are complications. Typically, children with severe CP will not live as long as those with milder cases.

Athetoid CP is associated with more disabilities, motor impairment, and complications. Because of this, children with athetoid CP have a higher risk of early death than children with other forms of CP.


Athetoid cerebral palsy is a form of cerebral palsy (CP) that causes uncontrollable muscle movements. It is the second most common type of CP.

CP is not curable. Treatments focus on increasing function and improving quality of life. These include therapies, supportive equipment, and medications.

Talk with your child’s doctor about the most effective treatments and therapies for athetoid CP.

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 27
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