Cerebral Palsy Misdiagnosis

Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed by:
Katie Lavender, RN Registered Nurse
Quick Answer

There are two different ways that someone can be misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy. Firstly, your child could be diagnosed with cerebral palsy when they have a different disorder or condition. Secondly, your child could be diagnosed with another condition when they do have cerebral palsy. Both cases can have serious consequences if not corrected early.

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Cerebral Palsy Misdiagnosis Explained

A cerebral palsy misdiagnosis is one of two things. Either the doctor has looked at signs and symptoms and made a cerebral palsy diagnosis by mistake, or they have diagnosed your baby with another condition when they actually have cerebral palsy.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with medical diagnoses, time is paramount. If the doctor misdiagnosed your child, it’s preventing your baby from getting the right treatment that can help manage or even cure their condition.

A cerebral palsy misdiagnosis can have especially devastating effects. People might struggle with a misdiagnosed condition for years when it could have been treated all along.

For example, there have been several cases of individuals who were thought to have cerebral palsy before they were finally diagnosed correctly as having dopa responsive dystonia (DRD). Once a patient with DRD is treated with dopamine (a brain chemical responsible for sending signals between cells), their symptoms virtually disappear.

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Common Disorders Mistaken for Cerebral Palsy

Because different disorders have some of the same symptoms, other conditions may be mistaken for cerebral palsy and vice versa. For example, misdiagnoses could involve other movement disorders, such as dopa responsive dystonia. Additionally, some medications might cause spastic behavior. In other instances, there may be instability in the spinal cord.

While these conditions can mimic each other in some aspects, they all have different treatments, so it is important that the individual is diagnosed correctly.

Dopa Responsive Dystonia

Other syndromes and conditions share many of the same symptoms as cerebral palsy. One example would be dopa responsive dystonia (DRD). DRD is a genetic disorder that causes the body to not produce enough of a neurochemical called dopamine. This causes a person to have physical limitations as their body’s muscle tone increases.

The most common symptom of DRD is a lack of muscle coordination when attempting to make direct muscle movements. Often movement of the lower body is affected first, and then, over the years, it takes over the upper body as well.

Symptoms of DRD are similar to cerebral palsy because the individual’s muscle tone can vary throughout the day. These similar characteristics can be confused for cerebral palsy and lead to a misdiagnosis.

The main difference between cerebral palsy and DRD is that the latter is a progressive movement disorder, and the former is not. This means the longer DRD is left untreated, the worse it can get.

Neurological Diseases

Other progressive disorders that are occasionally misdiagnosed as cerebral palsy are metachromatic leukodystrophy, Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, and Rett syndrome. These disorders differ from cerebral palsy in that they cause breakdowns in cognitive and behavioral skills, not just motor skills.

Glutaric aciduria type 1 is another genetic disorder that can be confused with cerebral palsy. It is a progressive condition that causes the child to develop chorea, where an individual makes rapid and random motions. It is caused by an abnormality in the temporal area of a child’s brain.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are not medical disorders, but their symptoms can be mistaken for one. If a child has progressive spasticity, deterioration of motor function, sensory changes, bowel movement, or bladder control issues, then the doctor should look into the possibility of them having an injury to their spinal column. The spine needs to be stabilized to prevent the condition from worsening.

Side Effects of Medications

Certain medications cause spastic motions as a side effect. If your child’s movements seem different, and they were recently put on a new drug, talk to your doctor about whether or not spastic movements are a side effect of the medication. This can prevent your child from receiving unnecessary treatments if their spasticity is not caused by cerebral palsy.

Doctors may misdiagnose cerebral palsy by not seeking out the opinion of a neurologist—a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and central nervous system. It is also important to get a second opinion from a trusted doctor if you feel a diagnosis may be incorrect.

Cerebral Palsy Misdiagnosis Factors

If doctors are not careful, they may confuse signs and symptoms of other conditions or cerebral palsy. For instance, other conditions mimic some of the symptoms of cerebral palsy. They may not have followed all of the steps that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

Doctors may also fail to ask for a second opinion from a pediatrician who specializes in cerebral palsy. Or, they may not take enough time to rule out cerebral palsy or other conditions before reaching a diagnosis. This is why parents need to sometimes take matters into their own hands and advocate for their child to make sure there has not been a misdiagnosis.

What Can Parents Do?

If you suspect that the doctors made a mistake and misdiagnosed your child, there are several things you can do. You can request brain imaging scans, ask for a second opinion, keep up-to-date on the latest research and treatments of cerebral palsy and movement disorders, or let your doctor know you want to be referred to a specialist.

Additionally, tracking your child’s development can help in the diagnosis process. By documenting if and when your child reaches different milestones, your doctor may be able to better determine what condition they may have. You can keep track of your child’s reflexes, posture, and movement and how they relate to the current research and understanding of cerebral palsy.

If you suspect a cerebral palsy misdiagnosis, you can monitor your child’s behavior and symptoms. Keep a written record of their developmental milestones and movement patterns.

Legal Help for Cerebral Palsy Misdiagnosis

Cerebral palsy may be the result of birth injuries, and misdiagnosis can lead to a loss of precious time and resources. A misdiagnosis of a birth injury may constitute medical negligence—a failure to provide the basic standard of care.

Financial compensation may be available to you to help pay for your child’s medication, treatment, therapy, and special needs costs. To work with an attorney experienced in cerebral palsy cases, contact the Birth Injury Justice Center today at 800-914-1562 and get a free medical case review.

Birth Injury Support Team
Reviewed by:Katie Lavender, RN

Registered Nurse

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Katie Lavender has over 8 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in postpartum mother/baby care. With hands-on experience in Labor and Delivery and a role as a Community Educator for newborn care, Katie is a staunch advocate for patient rights and education. As a Medical Reviewer, she is committed to ensuring accurate and trustworthy patient information.

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
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  2. CBS News. (2015, April 22). Woman misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy gets cure after 33 years. Retrieved November 26, 2023, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/woman-misdiagnosed-with-cerebral-palsy-gets-cure-after-33-years/
  3. Hakami, W. S., Hundallah, K. J., & Tabarki, B. M. (2019). Metabolic and genetic disorders mimicking cerebral palsy. Neurosciences (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), 24(3), 155–163. Retrieved November 26, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.17712/nsj.2019.3.20190045
  4. MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Dopa-responsive dystonia. Retrieved November 26, 2023, from https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/dopa-responsive-dystonia/#causes