Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis


How is a Cerebral Palsy diagnosis made? When an infant or child has brain damage, a variety of symptoms can lead doctors and parents to suspect that something is wrong. In the first few months of life, an infant with brain damage may demonstrate some or all of the following symptoms that can indicate a Cerebral Palsy diagnosis:

  • Lethargy, or lack of alertness
  • Irritability or fussiness
  • Abnormal, high-pitched cry
  • Trembling of the arms and legs
  • Poor feeding abilities secondary to problems sucking and swallowing
  • Low muscle tone
  • Abnormal posture, such as the child favoring one side of the body
  • Seizures, staring spells, eye fluttering, body twitching
  • Abnormal reflexes.

During the first six months of life, other signs of brain injury suggestive of Cerebral Palsy also may appear in an infants muscle tone and posture. These signs include:

  • Muscle tone may change gradually from low tone to high tone; a baby may go from floppy to very stiff.
  • The child may hold his or her hand in tight fists.
  • There may be asymmetries of movement, that is, one side of the body may move more easily and freely than the other side.
  • The infant may feed poorly, with their tongue pushing food out of their mouth forcefully.

Once a baby with brain damage reaches six months of age, it usually becomes quite apparent that he or she is picking up movement skills slower than normal. Infants with Cerebral Palsy are more often slow to reach certain developmental milestones, such as rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking and talking. Parents are more likely to notice developmental delays, abnormal behaviors, and signs of Cerebral Palsy, especially if this is not their first child. Sometimes when they express their concerns to their physicians, their child is immediately diagnosed as having Cerebral Palsy. More often, however, medical professionals hesitate to use the term “Cerebral Palsy” at first. Instead, they may use broader terms such as:

  • Developmental delay, which means that a child is slower than normal to develop movement skills such as rolling over and sitting up
  • Neuromotor dysfunction, or delay in the maturation of the nervous system
  • Motor disability, indicating a long term movement problem
  • Central nervous system dysfunction, which is a general term to indicate the brain’s improper functioning
  • Static encephalopathy, meaning abnormal brain function that is not getting worse.

So why do doctors frequently delay making a final diagnosis and prognosis when a child may have Cerebral Palsy? Part of the answer lies in the plasticity of a child’s central nervous system, or it’s ability to recover completely or partially after an injury occurs. The brains of very young children have a much greater capacity to repair themselves than do adult brains. If a brain injury occurs early, the undamaged areas of a child’s brain can sometimes take over some of the functions of the damaged areas. Although the child may have some motor impairment, he or she can often make great progress in other motor skills.

Another reason doctors may delay a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy is that a child’s nervous system organizes over time. Damage to the brain may affect your child’s motor abilities differently. For example, tone can go from low to high or vice versa, or involuntary movements can become more obvious. Generally, however, a child’s motor symptoms stabilize by two to three years of age. After this age, tone is probably not going to change dramatically.

So what does all of this mean? It means that a Cerebral Palsy diagnosis is not made over night. Since the extent of your child’s problems will probably not be clear for some time, his or her symptoms need to be monitored by an interdisciplinary team. This is a group of professionals with specialties in different areas. These health care professionals gather information on the child’s accomplishments and make comparisons over the months and years of the child’s life. They will keep you up to date on your child’s current needs and problems, as well as the medical reasons for these problems, if known. When diagnosing Cerebral Palsy, the interdisciplinary team must first conduct an assessment, or evaluation of the child’s strengths and needs in all areas. As your child grows older, additional assessments may be necessary.

In conclusion, Cerebral Palsy is diagnosed by a complete examination of your child’s current health status. Doctors will test your child’s motor skills and look carefully at his or her medical history. They will also look for slow development, abnormal muscle tone, and unusual posture. When diagnosing Cerebral Palsy, doctors must rule out other disorders that can cause abnormal movements. Cerebral Palsy does not get worse. In other words, it is not progressive. Based on this fact, doctors must make the determination that your child’s condition is not progressively getting worse. Doctors will also use a number of different specialized tests in diagnosing Cerebral Palsy. For example, the doctor may order a CT (computed tomography). This is an imaging of the brain that can determine underdeveloped areas of brain tissue. The doctor may also order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). This test also generates a picture of the brain to determine areas that may be damaged. In addition to these imaging tests, intelligence testing is also used. This helps to determine if a child is behind from a mental standpoint. In addition to diagnosing through a complete and thorough examination of the child’s abnormalities and behaviors, a review of the mother’s pregnancy, labor and delivery and care received is also conducted.