First aid for people with cerebral palsy | Pacific Medical ACLS

First aid for people with cerebral palsy | Pacific Medical ACLS

Ahmed Raza

Seizures. Choking. Falls. These three—often traumatizing incidents—are prevalent in children and people of all ages with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy, CP for short, is the most common motor disability in childhood averaging 3.3 children per 1,000 live births. As many as half of all children with CP have one or more seizures, and more than 30% have a limited or no walking ability.

CP affects each person differently; therefore, as a first-aid provider or caregiver, it is imperative to understand CP along with the heightened risk of distressing events.

Understanding cerebral palsy

CP is the result of brain injury and malformation that occurs before, during, or immediately after birth while the infant’s brain is under development. Interestingly, about 2% of CP cases are genetic.

How a brain injury affects motor functioning and intellectual abilities is dependent on the nature of the brain injury, where the damage occurs, and how severe it is. Sometimes the brain damage is not confined to one location. In such circumstances, it is plausible for a child to develop symptoms characteristic of multiple brain injuries.

There is no cure for the non-progressive neurological condition. Still, supportive therapies, medications, and surgery can help many individuals with CP develop their motor skills and ability to communicate with the world.

Types of Cerebral Palsy

There are four major categories of CP: spastic, athetoid, ataxic, and mixed. These are classified based on mobility limitations and the body part(s) being affected. The following is a summary of each type.

Seizures and epilepsy

A seizure, which is a single occurrence, is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain. Epilepsy is a chronic disorder characterized by two or more seizures. More than 10% of CP patients have epilepsy, which treatment and medication can usually control. Children who experience infrequent seizures or epilepsy are at an increased risk of injury and death than those without seizures.

Witnessing a seizure can be a scary and stressful situation, especially if it is the first time you are in this circumstance. Luckily, there are numerous ways you can help keep things under control.

First aid for seizures

Eating and swallowing difficulties

People with CP sometimes have dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which can lead to improper nutrition and dehydration in children and adults.

People with dysphagia are also more prone to choking, as well as respiratory infections like pneumonia—especially aspiration pneumonia, which occurs with inhalation of food, saliva, liquid, or vomit into the lungs.

How to recognize choking

Hands clutched to the throat is the universal signal for choking. A person with CP may not be able to give this signal. Other signs to look for include:

First aid for a conscious choking adult or child over one year with CP

If the individual can cough forcefully, the person should keep coughing. If the person is choking and can’t talk, cry, or laugh, use the following 5-and-5 approach:

Back blows

Abdominal thrusts (Heimlich maneuver)


Musculoskeletal disorders are often present in people with CP and can lead to gradual loss of function, decreasing one’s expected survival time.

Mobility begins to decline, especially during middle and older adulthood, which drastically increases the risk of falling. Adults with CP tend to have more issues with falling than children and adolescents with the disorder; however, people of all ages with CP can easily fall due to involuntary movements and imbalance issues.

Physical and aquatic therapy, mobility aids, and sometimes surgery are ways to help prevent falls. Healthcare providers encourage caretakers to enroll children with CP into physical therapy as soon as possible after diagnosis.

A rough fall for people with cerebral palsy can lead to sprains, broken bones, and an increase in CP symptoms.

How to recognize a broken bone

A cracked or broken bone can cause the following signs and symptoms:

First aid for a broken bone

If you suspect that an individual has a broken bone, provide first-aid treatment and help them get professional care immediately:

picture of broken bone in the lower leg

To prepare yourself for emergency situations for all ages, you can enroll in a certified first-aid training course.


Cerebral palsy: Hope through research — An educational resource for patients and caregivers about cerebral palsy by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Birth Prevalence of Cerebral Palsy — Read about the prevalence and characteristics of cerebral palsy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neurodegenerative disorder with progressive spasticity and brain white matter abnormalitie — Review an article that discusses the progressive spasticity and brain white matter abnormalities of this autosomal recessive disorder.

What is a seizure? — Johns Hopkins provides an in-depth review of seizures in this publication.

What to do when someone is having a seizure — Study an infographic provided by the University of Pittsburgh’s School of the Health Sciences that shows what to do when someone is having a seizure.

Choking first aid — Review Mayo Clinic’s step-by-step guide that explains what to do in a choking emergency.

Choking adult or child over 1 year — In this article, the National Institute of Health (NIH) explains what to do when a person older than one is choking.

Performance of adults with cerebral palsy related to falls, balance and function: a preliminary report — Read a report that describes the functional mobility of adults with CP.

Types of cerebral palsy and walking problems — Cerebral Palsy Guidance provides answers and assistance to caregivers of children with CP. This article reviews the types of CP and walking difficulties.

Broken bones — The NIH published this easy to understand overview of how to recognize a broken bone and the steps for providing first aid.

Written by on Apr 20, 2018

Sarah has worked in various roles at Coffee Medical Center including nurse, education director, and quality assurance director.

Last reviewed and updated by on Oct 2, 2021

Caitlin Goodwin, DNP, RN, CNM, is a Board Certified Nurse-Midwife, Registered Nurse, and freelance writer. She has over twelve years of experience in nursing practice.

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