The neuropathology of the vegetative (VS) and minimally conscious (MCS) states and the pathophysiology of spasticity are reviewed. Current treatment options available in the physical management of children in a low-level state and factors influencing the physiotherapy treatment of children in a low-level state will be discussed. The complex neuropathology of VS and MCS helps to explain the varied clinical presentations of children in VS and MCS. Spasticity and muscle contracture are common motor sequelae of VS and MCS. Loss of inhibition by descending motor pathways is thought to result in increased muscle tone or spasticity. However, secondary changes in muscle fibre structure and periarticular connective tissue may be an additional component to increased muscle tone. A multimodal approach combining physical, pharmacological and surgical interventions is likely to be the most effective. Knowledge of the likelihood of recovery from VS and MCS can be helpful in determining the frequency and intensity of physiotherapy. Ethical issues in the management of children in a low-level state include a consideration of the benefits to the child and the child's family and the costs to the health care team and the medical institution.