How Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?
Cerebral palsy is a complex group of disorders that affect the cerebral motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that directs muscle movement, and cause problems with movement, balance, and posture. This neurological condition will usually appear in infancy or early childhood and is caused by damage to or abnormalities inside the developing brain. These abnormalities disrupt the ability to control movement and regulate other physical abilities. Cerebral palsy is recognizable to individuals who have experience with the disorder, but some may not know the signs and symptoms of CP. The Special Olympics Arizona team is breaking down the diagnosis process for individuals with cerebral palsy: different diagnostic methods and when CP is usually diagnosed in individuals.
If your primary care physician or pediatrician notices some early signs or symptoms of CP in your infant or child, such as muscle spasticity, which leads to stiff and tight muscles; delayed milestones, especially physical milestones such as sitting up, walking, or crawling compared to their peers; or involuntary movements such as uncontrollable or writing movements, they may begin screening for CP to see if the symptoms may be attributed to the disorder. Early tests will include different types of brain scans to determine if there are abnormalities or lesions on the brain that are causing CP.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
One of the primary tools for diagnosing cerebral palsy is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This non-invasive imaging technique provides detailed pictures of the brain’s structure, allowing healthcare professionals to identify any abnormalities or lesions that may contribute to CP. This scan will allow doctors to obtain a detailed photo of the brain’s structure using magnetic fields and radio waves to produce a high quality image for examination.
Cranial ultrasound is often employed in the diagnosis of cerebral palsy, particularly in newborns. This imaging method uses sound waves to create images of the brain’s structures. It is particularly useful for detecting issues in a premature infant’s brain. This small, handheld device will be moved slowly around a baby’s head and will create an image of the brain, which can then be examined and screened for abnormalities.
Computed Tomography (CT) Scan
In certain cases, a computed tomography (CT) scan may be utilized to visualize the brain. While less common than an MRI, a CT scan can provide valuable information about the brain’s structure and identify any anomalies that may be associated with cerebral palsy. A CT is a scanner that will take X-ray photos of the brain, which will then be used to examine for any issues that could be causing CP.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a diagnostic tool that records electrical activity in the brain. In the context of cerebral palsy, an EEG may be used to identify abnormal patterns of brain waves, helping to pinpoint areas of the brain affected by the condition. During an EEG, small pads will be placed on the scalp to monitor brain activity and draw attention to areas of the brain with abnormal activity.
Laboratory tests may be conducted to rule out other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of cerebral palsy. These tests may include blood tests and metabolic screenings to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the individual’s health and eliminate any alternative diagnoses.
In addition to brain scans and laboratory tests, healthcare professionals may employ a range of additional evaluations. These may include developmental assessments, motor skill evaluations, and observations of the individual’s movement patterns. These holistic assessments provide a more comprehensive understanding of the individual’s condition. Specifically, in newborns, a number of tests may be conducted prior to an MRI or EEG to help determine if the baby will need to have these tests conducted. This can include a physical examination, where a doctor will check vital signs and other functioning abilities to check for any neurological symptoms. Doctors may also conduct an Apgar test, which is conducted immediately following birth to check a baby’s skin, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing. This test is a screening for a number of different conditions, including CP.
At What Age Is Cerebral Palsy Usually Diagnosed?
Cerebral palsy is typically diagnosed in early childhood, often before the age of two. The diagnosis may follow observations of developmental delays, abnormal muscle tone, and motor skill difficulties. Early intervention is crucial, as it allows for timely therapeutic interventions and support to enhance the individual’s quality of life.
Can CP Be Diagnosed Later in Life?
While cerebral palsy is usually diagnosed in childhood, in rare cases, individuals may receive a diagnosis later in life, especially if their symptoms were subtle or masked by other health conditions. Diagnostic tools such as brain scans and thorough clinical evaluations remain instrumental in confirming CP, even in adulthood.
Diagnosing cerebral palsy involves a multidimensional approach, encompassing advanced imaging techniques, laboratory tests, and comprehensive clinical assessments. Early diagnosis remains pivotal for implementing timely interventions and support. Understanding the diagnostic landscape provides a foundation for families, healthcare professionals, and individuals affected by cerebral palsy to navigate the challenges and embrace tailored strategies for a fulfilling life.