Hemiplegia is where one side of the body is paralysed. It can affect either side of the body. It is caused by damage to the brain, such as a stroke. This can happen before, during or after birth. The condition can be congenital or acquired.

What causes hemiplegia?

Hemiplegia is caused by damage to the brain. The damage can occur before or during birth, which is called congenital hemiplegia. No one knows what causes the damage in these cases.

Hemiplegia can also be acquired. This is caused by damage to the brain, such as a stroke, in childhood.

Sometimes the condition will only become clear as the baby gets older, such as having trouble walking.

An injury to the right side of the brain will cause the left side of the body to be paralysed. An injury to the left side of the brain will cause the right side of the body to be paralysed.

The condition can affect any child, but it is slightly more common in premature babies. It is quite a common condition, affecting one in 1000 births.

What are the signs and symptoms of hemiplegia?

The main symptom of hemiplegia is weakness or paralysis on one side of the child’s body. The condition can vary in severity and affects each child differently. It will only affect one side of the child’s body. General symptoms include:

  • difficulty walking
  • poor balance
  • little or no use of one hand or leg

The condition affects the brain. This means that there may be other associated symptoms, such as:

  • speech problems
  • visual problems
  • behavioural problems
  • learning difficulties
  • epilepsy
  • developmental delay, for example learning to walk later than other children

How is hemiplegia normally diagnosed?

A doctor will examine the child for signs of paralysis. A Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computerized Tomography (CT) scan of the brain can look for a brain injury.

It is often difficult for a doctor to determine how mild or severe the condition is. It may be a case of having to wait and see how each child develops over time.

How is hemiplegia treated?

Hemiplegia cannot be cured. Treatment will involve managing the symptoms and improving quality of life.

The good news is that a child’s brain will often re-wire itself to a certain degree. This means that some brain function can be taken over by unaffected parts of the brain.

Physiotherapy will help the child to build up the weakened side of their body to improve function. Occupational therapy can teach them how to cope with everyday activities. Speech therapy may also be necessary for some children.

What happens next?

As the child gets older it will become clearer how mild or severe their condition is. This will be shown in certain developmental milestones, such as walking, which they may reach slightly later than other children.

Children with hemiplegia will learn their abilities as they develop and grow. Regular physical therapy can help them live a normal life.

Last review date: 
July 2011