Cerebral Palsy vs. Muscular Dystrophy: 3 Key Differences

3 min read

A boy in a wheelchair smiles

Cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy are two groups of conditions that are sometimes confused for one another. Cerebral palsy impacts muscle tone, coordination, and mental function, while muscular dystrophy mainly affects muscle tone. Learn more about the key differences between both conditions below.

What Are Cerebral Palsy and Muscular Dystrophy?

Cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy are incurable conditions that can affect a child’s entire life. Cerebral palsy can negatively impact muscle control and tone, motor skills, and mental abilities, while muscular dystrophy causes muscles to progressively weaken over time.

Because the conditions share symptoms (such as a lack of muscle control), it may be hard to tell them apart without a diagnosis. Thus, it’s important to learn more about each condition and consult with a doctor if you think your child is at risk.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy vs. Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is mainly caused from genetic mutations, while cerebral palsy is caused by traumatic injuries to the brain before, during, or shortly after birth.

Muscular dystrophy develops when mutated genes prevent the body from producing the proteins needed for healthy muscle mass.

Cerebral palsy can be caused by many different conditions — all of which damage the brain.

Causes of cerebral palsy may include:

  • Asphyxiation during birth: If a doctor or nurse is negligent during the delivery process, they may cut off oxygen to a child’s brain. This can lead to cerebral palsy.
  • Blunt head trauma: If a child’s head is mishandled or hit with a heavy object during delivery, the damage may cause cerebral palsy.
  • Brain hemorrhages: Dangerous brain bleeds can cause permanent brain damage in newborns or young children.
  • Fetal or newborn infections: If a fetal or newborn infection is not detected and treated immediately, it can harm brain development and function.
  • Jaundice: Jaundice occurs when a newborn’s body cannot process bilirubin, a yellow pigment excreted by cells. Left untreated, jaundice can build up in the body and cause cerebral palsy.
  • Maternal health conditions: Mothers who suffer from seizures, thyroid problems, or intellectual disabilities are more likely to have children with cerebral palsy.

Sadly, the causes of cerebral palsy may not be known in some cases. Expectant parents should be aware of the conditions that cause cerebral palsy to protect their unborn child.

Prognosis of Cerebral Palsy vs. Muscular Dystrophy

A prognosis is an expected outcome of a disease. The prognosis for cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy differ.

A cerebral palsy prognosis depends on how severe the brain injury is. Since the brain injury that causes cerebral palsy doesn’t change over time, the condition generally doesn’t get worse as a child ages.

Some with cerebral palsy can go on to live productive lives as long as they have the proper care.

Muscular dystrophy typically worsens over time. For some, the progression will be relatively slow. For others, such as those with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (a subtype that often affects boys), the condition progresses rapidly.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIDA), most boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy are unable to walk by age 12 and later require a respirator to help with breathing.

Symptoms of Muscular Dystrophy vs. Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy have different symptoms, although children with either condition may suffer from learning disabilities and muscle problems.

Cerebral palsy symptoms can vary depending on the different parts of the brain that are damaged.

Symptoms of cerebral palsy may include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty eating
  • Fine motor skill problems
  • Learning problems
  • Stiff muscles
  • Tremors

However, some cerebral palsy symptoms may become more apparent as a child gets older. If muscle shortening or rigidity isn’t treated aggressively, it can worsen.

Muscular dystrophy symptoms often affect movement and growth.

The symptoms of muscular dystrophy include:

  • Difficulties getting up, running, or moving feet
  • Growth delays
  • Learning problems
  • Muscle pain and weakness

According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of muscular dystrophy can appear at different times. For those affected by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, symptoms can appear in early childhood.

Symptoms of other forms of muscular dystrophy may not appear until the affected person is a teenager or in their early 20s.

Treating Cerebral Palsy vs. Muscular Dystrophy

Neither cerebral palsy nor muscular dystrophy can be cured. That said, the conditions actually share several treatments to help manage symptoms.

Both muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy can be treated through:

  • Medications
  • Physical therapies
  • Surgeries to correct contractures
  • The use of braces, wheelchairs, and mobility aids

Parents who believe their children are suffering from cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy should speak to a doctor immediately. In the case of cerebral palsy, early detection and treatment can help prevent some symptoms from worsening.

Cerebral Palsy Guide was founded upon the goal of educating families about cerebral palsy, raising awareness, and providing support for children, parents, and caregivers affected by the condition. Our easy-to-use website offers simple, straightforward information that provides families with medical and legal solutions. We are devoted to helping parents and children access the tools they need to live a life full of happiness

Causes and Risk Factors of Cerebral Palsy. (2019, September 23). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/causes.html

Cerebral palsy. (2019, August 17). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cerebral-palsy/diagnosis-treatment/drc-2035400

Muscular dystrophy. (2020, January 31). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscular-dystrophy/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20375394