Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy
Waiting for any sort of diagnosis for your child is a time of great anxiety. Unfortunately when diagnosing cerebral palsy there is no one simple, single test that can provide an immediate answer. Instead, for a reliable diagnosis, medical teams need to look at a child’s development over time, while using medical tests to rule out the possibility of other conditions that may only look like cerebral palsy (CP). The age at which the condition is diagnosed, and the medical tests used to make a diagnosis will vary from child to child.
Age of diagnosis differs greatly
Some premature babies with severe cerebral palsy who have spent a lot of time in the neonatal unit may receive an early diagnosis. However, most children are diagnosed between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. As a child begins to sit, crawl and move the signs of cerebral palsy become more noticeable. There may be an obvious stiffness to certain muscles, or a child may begin to use an arm or leg in unusual way. CP may be suspected if developmental milestones like crawling or sitting up unaided are delayed. It may not be possible to determine the type and severity of the condition until the child is 3 or 4.
How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
Your paediatrician will ask about your child’s medical history and will look at their motor skills, co-ordination, and reflexes. Referrals may be made to a neurologist, physiotherapist, educational psychologist, ophthalmologist or otologists to arrive at an accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.
Neuroimaging tests or brain scans
To take a closer look at what’s happening inside the brain, doctors might use the following tests. Often they are used to rule out other conditions rather than prove a diagnosis of CP.
Computed Tomography (CT): A CT uses x-rays to look at the structure of the brain and any areas of damage. NHS.uk provides more information on what’s involved.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An MRI is even more detailed than a CT scan and can show the location and type of damage within the brain. NHS.uk provides more information on what’s involved.
Cranial ultrasound: Often used with high-risk premature babies because it’s the least intrusive way to see potential areas of damage. Web MD provides more information on what’s involved.
Electroencephalogram (EEG): This is a recording of brain activity. The test is used to detect abnormalities in the electrical activity of the brain. NHS.uk provides more information on what’s involved.
Electromyogram (EMG): This tests the function of the peripheral nerves running from the brain and spinal cord to other areas of the body.
Early intervention with physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy can make a huge difference to your child’s quality of life and focus everyone on set goals to improve daily challenges. If there’s a strong suspicion your child might have cerebral palsy (even without a formal diagnosis) it's worth looking into the benefits of early therapy.
You’re not alone
Finding out your child has cerebral palsy can be isolating and overwhelming. However, there are many sources of help, advice and support out there to help you raise your child with confidence. Learn what others say they wish they knew then, that they know now… and find support groups in your area.