3 Key Differences Between Cerebral Palsy and Muscular Dystrophy

3 min read

A boy in a wheelchair smiles

Cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy are sometimes mistaken for one another because they both affect a person’s muscle control and ability to move. However, there are some key differences between the two.

Most notably, cerebral palsy affects the neurological system, while muscular dystrophy affects only the muscles and how they strengthen. As a result, they have different causes, ways they progress, and symptoms.

Keep reading to learn about these two conditions, or download our FREE Cerebral Palsy Guide for an in-depth look at cerebral palsy.

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1. Causes of Cerebral Palsy vs. Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is mainly caused by genetic mutations. These mutated genes prevent the body from producing the proteins needed for healthy muscle mass.

In contrast, cerebral palsy is caused by traumatic injuries to the brain before, during, or shortly after birth. Unfortunately, many birth injuries that result in cerebral palsy are linked to medical negligence from hospital staff.

Causes of cerebral palsy may include:

  • Asphyxiation during birth: If a doctor or nurse is negligent during the delivery process, oxygen flow to the brain may get cut off and cause irreversible damage.
  • Blunt head trauma: If a child’s head suffers trauma from the misuse of delivery tools like forceps or vacuum extractors during delivery, the damage may cause cerebral palsy.
  • Brain hemorrhages: Dangerous brain bleeds can cause permanent damage in newborns or young children.
  • Fetal or newborn infections: If infections are not detected and treated immediately, they can harm brain development and function.
  • Jaundice: This occurs when a newborn’s body has a high level of bilirubin, a yellow pigment excreted by cells. Left untreated, jaundice can lead to cerebral palsy.
  • Maternal health conditions: Mothers with untreated infections, high blood pressure, or other conditions may be at a higher risk of their child developing cerebral palsy.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know in the moment whether these conditions occurred or if they will cause cerebral palsy. Parents should carefully monitor their child to ensure they meet developmental milestones.

2. Prognosis of Cerebral Palsy vs. Muscular Dystrophy

The prognosis, or expected outcome of a disease, for cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy differ.

Muscular dystrophy is considered progressive, meaning it 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 advances rapidly.

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

Cerebral palsy is not progressive, but the level of care a child will need depends on how severe the brain injury is. The amount of damage to the brain won’t change over time, so the condition generally doesn’t get worse as the child ages.

In fact, some children with cerebral palsy begin to see improvement in their symptoms over time and are able to live full and independent lives with the proper care.

3. Symptoms of Muscular Dystrophy vs. Cerebral Palsy

Although children with either cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy may have trouble moving, these conditions also have unique symptoms.

Muscular Dystrophy Symptoms

Muscular dystrophy symptoms typically only 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

The symptoms of muscular dystrophy can appear at different times. For those affected by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, symptoms can start in early childhood, while others may not begin to see signs of the condition until they are a teenager or in their early 20s.

Cerebral Palsy Symptoms

Cerebral palsy symptoms affect movement and other functions depending on the damaged parts of the brain and the child's age.

Symptoms of cerebral palsy may include:

  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Difficulty walking, standing, or moving
  • Excessive drooling
  • Fine motor skill problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Stiff muscles
  • Tremors or spastic movement
  • Trouble speaking
  • Vision problems

Some cerebral palsy symptoms may only become apparent as a child gets older.

Treatments for Cerebral Palsy and Muscular Dystrophy

Treatment is crucial for people with both cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy to help improve their quality of life. Neither condition can be cured, but several treatments can help manage symptoms.

Treatments for cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy are often similar and include:

  • Assistive equipment like braces, wheelchairs, and mobility aids
  • Medication to ease pain and muscle strain
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Surgery to correct more severe cases

Parents who believe their child has 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.

Get Help With Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy

Thousands of children are diagnosed with cerebral palsy every year. If your child is living with cerebral palsy caused by medical malpractice at birth, you may be able to seek help.

Our team has helped many families access financial support, so they can afford lifelong care for their child.

Call us at (855) 220-1101 or download our free Cerebral Palsy Guide now to see how we may be able to help you.

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