Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy in Children

It wasn’t too long ago that a child born with cerebral palsy could be sent home from the hospital without the parent being made aware of any potential neurological disorders. Today, doctors have a range of powerful tools at their disposal to test for these issues, and even if cerebral palsy cannot be accurately diagnosed immediately, there are often indications that infant brain damage has occurred.

In fact, most cases of cerebral palsy are not immediately diagnosed. Often times, diagnosing the existence of cerebral palsy can take up to two years and require multiple tests.

For some families, it only becomes apparent that there may be a problem when there are developmental delays such as failing to reach major milestones at normally-expected ages.

As a parent, you might have noticed that your child doesn’t act or respond as expected for his or her age. This developmental delay could be an indicator of a cerebral injury, and it is recommended that parents in this situation seek the advice of a pediatric doctor.

Cerebral Palsy Tests and Medical Evaluations

Unfortunately, there is no single test that can unequivocally determine the existence of cerebral palsy. Instead, diagnosis is often a process which can involve various tests and medical evaluations, such as the following.

General Movements Assessment – Your pediatric doctor can perform what is called a General Movements Assessment; a quick inspection to check your child’s motor function as well as his or her posture when seated or lying on the floor.

APGAR Score – The APGAR scoring system was devised as a quick means of assessing a newborn infant immediately after birth. While the use of the APGAR score can be a helpful tool in determining an infant’s potential for cerebral palsy, a low APGAR score on its own is not necessarily an absolute indication of CP due to its inherent limitations.

Neuroimaging / Brain Scans – Neuroimaging technology is vastly improved, compared to where it was just a few decades ago. Today, doctors can perform many different types of scans (CT scans, MRIs, cranial ultrasounds) on someone with no invasive surgery at all. This means that infant’s brain can be scanned to the point where doctors can “see” their brain tissue and look for areas of potential damage (such as periventricular leukomalacias). This makes it much easier to spot the types of injuries that often cause cerebral palsy.

Lab Work – Laboratory technology is also much more advanced that it was in the past. Doctors can use advanced testing techniques to figure out what might be wrong with the child, and to offer them appropriate treatments for any medical issues they find. Laboratory testing allows doctors to eliminate certain causes of cerebral-palsy-like symptoms, and to isolate the actual cause of the problems the infant is having.

A recent study by JAMA Pediatrics states that that the most predictive tools for detecting brain injuries in newborns (under 5 months of age) are:

  • MRIs ( with 86%-89% sensitivity)
  • The Prechtl Qualitative Assessment of General Movements (with 98% sensitivity)
  • The Hammersmith Infant Neurological Examination (with 90% sensitivity)

The Importance of Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy Early

Cerebral palsy can be a devastating condition, but it is not the end of the world. Millions of people are currently living (and thriving) with CP. By starting treatment early, you’ll give your child the best chance at a happy, successful, and full life.