How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
Most children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed during the first 2 years of life. But if a child’s symptoms are mild, it can be difficult for a doctor to make a reliable diagnosis before the age of 4 or 5.
Doctors will order a series of tests to evaluate the child’s motor skills. During regular visits, the doctor will monitor the child’s development, growth, muscle tone, age-appropriate motor control, hearing and vision, posture, and coordination, in order to rule out other disorders that could cause similar symptoms. Although symptoms may change over time, CP is not progressive. If a child is continuously losing motor skills, the problem more is a condition other than CP—such as a genetic or muscle disease, metabolism disorder, or tumors in the nervous system.
Lab tests can identify other conditions that may cause symptoms similar to those associated with CP.
Neuroimaging techniques that allow doctors to look into the brain (such as an MRI scan) can detect abnormalities that indicate a potentially treatable movement disorder. Neuroimaging methods include:
Another test, an electroencephalogram, uses a series of electrodes that are either taped or temporarily pasted to the scalp to detect electrical activity in the brain. Changes in the normal electrical pattern may help to identify epilepsy.
Some metabolic disorders can masquerade as CP. Most of the childhood metabolic disorders have characteristic brain abnormalities or malformations that will show up on an MRI.
Other types of disorders can also be mistaken for CP or can cause specific types of CP. For example, coagulation disorders (which prevent blood from clotting or lead to excessive clotting) can cause prenatal or perinatal strokes that damage the brain and produce symptoms characteristic of CP, most commonly hemiparetic CP. Referrals to specialists such as a child neurologist, developmental pediatrician, ophthalmologist, or otologist aid in a more accurate diagnosis and help doctors develop a specific treatment plan.