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The process of diagnosing cerebral palsy in children involves being evaluated by various doctors and specialists.
These medical professionals all have different areas of expertise, which will become increasingly important as you begin to rule out various co-occurring disorders, such as autism or epilepsy, as the primary diagnosis.
Symptoms of CP can range from mild to severe. Identifying these signs can be a challenge for both doctors and parents, as they often take months or even years to notice. Cerebral palsy symptoms mimic many other movement or neurological disorders, and unfortunately there is no simple test that can conclusively diagnose CP.
There are a number of cerebral palsy doctors and specialists that will likely be involved in your child’s cerebral palsy diagnosis. These medical professionals include:
By involving an array of doctors, specialists and medical professionals for your child’s CP diagnosis and continued care, they will stand the highest chance of receiving exactly the type of treatment that is right for them.
The most common doctor involved in diagnosing the early signs of cerebral palsy will be your child’s pediatrician. Among many other things, pediatricians are responsible for observing your child’s mental and physical development and comparing their progress to what is considered to be “healthy development”. Children are typically screened for developmental disabilities at 9, 18 and 24 months of age.
If you have noticed that your child has missed any important developmental milestones, such as crawling, sitting, standing or speaking, you should talk to your pediatrician regarding your concerns.
Pediatricians observe developmental delays in key areas of motor functioning. They may ask questions like:
It can take anywhere from a few months to 5 years of age to confirm a CP diagnosis. By assessing your child’s posture, reflexes and muscle tone at various times throughout early childhood, this will allow your child’s pediatrician to become aware of any delays or red flags that should be monitored more closely.
If your pediatrician determines that your child is not meeting important developmental milestones, they will likely refer you to a specialist that will be able to further observe your child’s condition. Developmental behavioral specialists, geneticists, neurologists and orthopedic specialists will likely be recommended for further testing.
Developmental behavioral specialists are trained in the ways to evaluate developmental, learning or behavioral delays in children. These specialists will be able to provide treatment options for those who are not meeting critical developmental milestones.
The most common conditions that developmental behavioral specialists treat are:
Developmental behavioral specialists often work with a team of medical professionals in order to form a diagnosis and treatment plan that is best for your child. Having access to this extended medical team will ensure that no matter what issue your child may be having with their development, there is a specialist nearby who can help.
If your pediatrician refers you to a developmental behavioral specialist, you should be able to find one within your area. Developmental behavioral specialists usually practice in hospitals, major medical centers, clinics, rehabilitation centers, community centers and schools.
While the connection between genetics and cerebral palsy is still being researched, studies show that at least one out of every 10 cases of CP likely has an underlying genetic cause. For parents who have questions about how their child developed CP or if there were any way to prevent this from happening, genetics can help provide answers.
Cerebral palsy is typically the result of a brain injury that occurs before, during or shortly after birth. This birth injury prevents the brain from developing properly, which can result in an array of neurological or behavioral issues – including cerebral palsy.
In the case that there aren’t any obvious signs of trauma at birth or shortly after, doctors may want to look more closely at your child’s genetic makeup. This usually involves seeing a geneticist who will investigate your child’s genetic code and determine if this could have had anything to do with their development of CP.
A study out of Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s Hospital found that mutations or misspellings in the genetic code of a specific gene (FRRS1L) led to cerebral palsy in some children. A geneticist will be able to take a detailed look into your child’s individual DNA strands in order to determine if any mutations occurred that could have led to their CP.
In addition to taking a closer look at your child’s DNA, geneticists are able to:
Neurologists are an essential part of diagnosing cerebral palsy. If you’ve noticed your child having issues controlling muscle movement, coordination or meeting developmental milestones, the next step is to see a neurologist.
These specialists are able to help determine if your child’s brain is sending the appropriate signals to the rest of the body, and if there is any brain damage present that has halted healthy development. Neurologists use various imaging tests in order to uncover the type of CP and its severity and hopefully determine a cause. Imaging tests used by neurologists include MRIs, CT scans, cranial ultrasounds and EEGs.
A typical neurological exam will be composed of seven steps. These steps are:
Once a neurologist has conducted the seven steps above, they will be able to rule out any other movement disorders that may have been suspected and determine the severity of CP.
As with the diagnosis process, continued care for a child with cerebral palsy also requires an array of therapists with different specialties and approaches. Once it has been determined whether your child has spastic, athetoid/dyskinetic, ataxic or mixed cerebral palsy, you will be able to begin therapy.
Parents and caregivers of children with CP will find that this is not a “one size fits all” diagnosis. There are many different levels of severity that a child with cerebral palsy can have, and this will impact their ability to accomplish various everyday tasks independently.
For example, one child with CP may suffer from debilitating movement issues and be unable to speak without an assistive device, while another may only have minor physical impairments. Both of these children would require a very different treatment plan. The most important part of treating CP is to ensure that your child’s plan is tailored to their individual needs and abilities.
Therapists used to provide continued care for children with cerebral palsy include:
If your child has issues communicating, eating or swallowing, speech therapy can help to improve these challenges. Speech therapy is a common treatment method for CP, as more than half of all children with cerebral palsy also suffer from speech problems.
Speech therapy can help with articulation, word comprehension, stuttering and vocabulary development, among many other things. By working with a speech therapist to strengthen their communication skills, your child will be able to approach daily interactions with confidence.
Occupational therapy is used to improve physical and cognitive abilities, as well as fine motor skills. The purpose behind this form of therapy is to help children with CP develop or recover the skills they need in order to complete everyday activities independently.
Children with CP will work with an occupational therapist on activities such as playing and learning. They may practice daily tasks, such as eating or picking up small objects. Occupational therapists encourage self-sufficiency and work to improve the motor skills needed to complete daily tasks as children transition into adulthood.
There are many benefits of physical therapy for a child with CP. These include improving mobility, balance, flexibility and overall health. This form of therapy can also be used to prevent any future complications that can stem from mobility issues, such as scoliosis or hand and wrist deformities.
Physical therapists will utilize a combination of exercises, muscle relaxing techniques and special equipment, such as exercise balls. For toddlers, the focus of physical therapy tends to be playtime, whereas for young children or adults, the focus will be on improving motor control and movement.
As you can see, there are many doctors and specialists involved in diagnosing and treating cerebral palsy in children. All of these medical professionals have different areas of expertise and these distinct skills are needed at various steps in the process of raising a child with CP.
If you are having any issues locating doctors, specialists or therapists, you should start by contacting your pediatrician. Your child’s pediatrician is usually one of the best places to go when seeking out recommendations for further care. They will likely be able to provide you with the names of specialists within your area, as well as those who are within your insurance provider’s network.
Doctors and specialists are a necessary part of diagnosing, treating and caring for a child with cerebral palsy. By seeking out knowledgeable medical professionals that you trust, your child will be able to best cope with their CP symptoms and lead an independent life.
For more information on doctors and specialists for cerebral palsy, try downloading our free Cerebral Palsy Guide. This includes over 60 pages of in-depth information for families affected by CP.
Kimberlee is a writer and researcher who is passionate about helping children with disabilities enjoy a happy, healthy life. She works closely with our attorneys to create content that educates the families and caretakers of children with cerebral palsy.