A definitive test for cerebral palsy -- or CP -- does not exist at this time. The diagnosis is based on a child's medical history and a physical exam.
Doctors diagnose CP by testing the infant's motor skills, looking for characteristic symptoms, and considering the child's medical history. They also may use computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look for abnormalities in the infant's brain. Certain lab tests may help rule out various progressive biochemical disorders that involve the motor system, such as Tay-Sachs disease.
A CP diagnosis can be difficult, because infants may have more than one type of the disease and their symptoms may change during their first few years, making an exact diagnosis impossible.
CP is easier to diagnose in more severely affected children. In these children, a diagnosis can often be made within the first months of life. About 43% of CP cases are diagnosed within this time frame; about 70% are diagnosed by the end of their first year. More mildly affected children may not have a confirmed diagnosis until as late as age 3 or 4.
What Are the Treatments for Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured. However, treatment can improve an affected person's capabilities, increasing motor function and independence. Many people who have CP enjoy near-normal lives. Depending on his or her symptoms, a person with CP may need the following:
Surgery. Surgery is used to correct muscle contractures -- bending at a joint due to muscles that are too short or are spastic. During such surgery, muscle is lengthened. In another type of surgery, certain spinal nerves may be severed to help reduce spasticity in the legs.
Medications, which may be used to treat muscle problems and other symptoms. Drugs such as diazepam, baclofen, and dantrolene are sometimes used to control muscle spasticity. Anticholinergic drugs may be used to help control abnormal movements. Alcohol or Botox injections into muscle may be used to reduce spasticity for a short time so health care providers can work to lengthen a muscle. Baclofen infused into the spinal canal under control of an electronic pump may be used to control spasticity for long periods of time. Other drugs may also be given to control seizures.
Physical therapy, which consists of special exercises designed to increase and improve the child's movement and strength. In healthy children, normal daily activity stretches muscles, helping them grow faster in order to keep up with growing bones. In children with CP, muscles don't stretch and grow normally. As the child ages, the difference between bone growth and muscle growth can interfere with motor abilities. Physical therapy helps combat this.
Mechanical aids -- from orthotic braces that help stretch muscles by holding bones in certain positions to a computer equipped with special input devices and a speech synthesizer to help the person communicate -- may help with a wide variety of functions.
Occupational therapy, can help the child develop the fine motor skills needed to function day to day at home and school.
Speech therapy to help the child overcome communication problems.
Counseling, such as from a social worker or psychologist, to help the child and the child's family cope with the child's condition and obtain needed services.