A Nationwide Birth Injury Resource

Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy

As with many other medical conditions, when it comes to cerebral palsy, early intervention makes all the difference. While there is no cure for cerebral palsy, treatment and therapy can help to maximize the patient's independence and quality of life.

Unfortunately, there is no single test that either confirms or rules out cerebral palsy. Diagnosis generally happens over a period of time and involves multiple tests. While severe cases tend to be diagnosed early, more mild cases may not be diagnosed until the preschool years, as it takes time for the signs and symptoms to become apparent.

Diagnostic tests

Early in life, the most accurate test for cerebral palsy is called a general movements assessment (GMA). This assessment measures spontaneous movements in newborns who are under four months of age: the tonic neck reflex, grasp reflex, Moro reflex, tongue thrust reflex and rooting reflexes. As a rule, the best time to perform the GMA is three months post-term - that is, three months after birth for full-term babies, and three months after the child would have been born at term for premature babies.

In order to assess the underlying brain damage, an MRI or CT scan is needed. In general, the MRI is the more accurate and safer test. These neuroimaging tests can identify when the original brain damage occurred (prenatal or during labor and delivery, for example) and help assess the underlying cause of cerebral palsy. Furthermore, MRI or CT scans may identify treatable conditions that co-occur with cerebral palsy.

Misdiagnosis of cerebral palsy

Because cerebral palsy has such a broad range of possible symptoms, it is unfortunately likely to be confused with some other medical conditions. For example, temporary problems with muscle tone or control may be confused with CP (which causes permanent problems). Certain metabolic disorders may look similar to cerebral palsy on an MRI or CT scan.

Recently, we have also seen an increased prevalence of cerebral palsy being misdiagnosed as autism. Cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have several symptoms in common, and they are both usually diagnosed within the first three years of life. Doctors may have an additional motive to favor a diagnosis of autism: the causes of autism are not well understood and generally cannot be tied to negligence, whereas cerebral palsy is often caused by medical malpractice and thus can open up doctors to potential liability.

While it often takes time to be sure of a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, we believe that getting the right diagnosis as soon as possible should be considered the standard of care. If you believe anything went wrong with your child's diagnosis, the best course of action is to seek legal help as soon as possible.