What is Involved in a Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis?

Florence J. Tipton

Cerebral palsy diagnosis is primarily based on information gathered during examinations of the behavioral and physical functions of a child. Healthcare providers must identify the causes of cerebral palsy that are treatable and rule out any other possible disorders. This requires a neurological examination and assessment of an impaired child. A pediatric neurologist or other medical practitioner orders laboratory tests to make further diagnoses from the assessment.

Children with cerebral palsy might experience a rigid posture.
Children with cerebral palsy might experience a rigid posture.

A number of tests are involved in a cerebral palsy diagnosis, because it can result from different causes. The type of test performed identifies specific causes and related conditions that result in cerebral palsy. These tests might reveal that the child has one of three types of cerebral palsy: hypotonic, spastic or choreoathetoid. The form of motor impairment determines which type a child has, and some children have a combination of these.

A patient may need an MRI to diagnose cerebral palsy.
A patient may need an MRI to diagnose cerebral palsy.

Muscle tone is weakened in hypotonic cerebral palsy. This type of cerebral palsy is visible in infants who cannot control head movements from a sitting position. Children with the spastic form of cerebral palsy have increased muscle tone in one or both arms and legs, leading to a rigid posture. Stress might cause uncontrollable movement in the arms and/or legs of children who have choreoathetoid cerebral palsy.

The damage that causes cerebral palsy usually occurs before birth.
The damage that causes cerebral palsy usually occurs before birth.

Most children who are diagnosed with cerebral palsy will have multiple symptoms of the various types of cerebral palsy. For example, an increase in deep tendon reflex frequently occurs in children who has hypotonic or choreoathetoid cerebral palsy. This symptom suggests some form of spastic cerebral palsy.

Doctors might use a computed tomography (CT) scan to reveal the extent of brain damage. The CT scan provides a detailed image of the brain. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is the most sensitive study of brain imaging for cerebral palsy diagnosis. Tissue-sliced images are computer generated from radio waves to detect structural changes that are affecting the brain. Tests of the blood and urine can identify the common errors of metabolism that lead to cerebral palsy.

A cerebral palsy diagnosis is generally made within the first two years of a child’s life. Diagnosis is difficult to make during the first six months. The reason a particular child has cerebral palsy is not revealed through the tests and examination process.

Some children who are impaired with cerebral palsy as infants have the potential to become productive and independent members in society. Others might need ongoing support. Further testing after the initial cerebral palsy diagnosis might be required to identify specific needs for the child.

There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but physical therapy and other treatments can improve the prognosis.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but physical therapy and other treatments can improve the prognosis.

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