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If a physician thinks that your child may have cerebral palsy, there are a number of tests and screenings performed to obtain an accurate diagnosis. One part of the diagnosis process is imaging tests, which allows doctors to view the child’s brain for abnormalities.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is one of the most effective imaging tests, as it uses both radio waves and magnetic fields to capture images of the child’s brain, and if needed, the child’s spine. However, these types of tests can be tricky when performed on children, as they must remain still for a lengthy imaging session, which generally lasts anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes. 
It’s also usually uncomfortable for children due to loud noises and being confined, but the test itself is painless. Often a child is sedated so they will not move excessively.
If an MRI of the brain is needed only, the images will indicate any abnormalities in the brain structure. If an MRI of the spinal cord is conducted, it helps to reveal any abnormalities that cause leg spasticity problems, bladder issues, and complications of the bowels.
An MRI can also detect additional problems in the brain, should they exist, such as brain tumors, bleeding, or swelling.
A cranial ultrasound is a preferred imaging test because it’s easier for infants when compared to an MRI. However, a cranial ultrasound may not provide the best imaging results as an MRI can.
A cranial ultrasound needs to be performed during infancy, before the cranial bones are completely formed. Once the child’s cranial bones form, the bones will block the imaging.
During a cranial ultrasound, an image captures the brain waves with high-frequency sound.  The procedure is painless and relatively faster than an MRI.
Computerized Tomography Scan (CT Scan)
A computerized tomography scan (CT scan) obtains images of the child’s brain via X-rays, which can give physicians cross-sectional images.  Cross-sectional images can help in getting a cerebral palsy diagnosis by detecting abnormalities in the brain.
A CT scan is pain-free and typically lasts anywhere between 15-20 minutes. However, similar to an MRI, the child must remain still the entire time. He/she may be given a mild sedative to help with staying still during the process.
It’s important to note that a CT scan uses ionizing radiation when performing the tests. Some studies suggest that high amounts of ionizing radiation can have a negative impact on brains that are still developing. If your physician suggests a CT scan for your child, make sure you go over all the risks involved with your doctor before making a final decision.
If you and your doctor decide that a CT scan is the best option for your child, Merck Manual suggests that you:
- Request the lowest dose of radiation as possible
- Request that the lowest dose of radiation is limited as much as possible
- Request that only one or a few scans be performed
In some instances, an electroencephalogram (EEG) will be administered. An EEG is a relatively painless procedure that can determine if a child has epilepsy. Epilepsy is one of the commonly associated disorders of cerebral palsy.
During an EEG, numerous electrodes are attached to the child’s head, which can detect the brain’s electrical activity.  Children with epilepsy typically show abnormal changes in brain waves.
Will Imaging Tests Confirm Cerebral Palsy?
According to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), imaging tests sometimes confirm cerebral palsy, along with other accompanying tests, such as motor development exams. In other instances, however, additional tests will be administered if the imaging tests and associated exams are not enough.
Additional tests may include genetic testing, metabolic tests, and coagulation tests. Keep in mind that there is no single test that can confirm cerebral palsy. Your child will more than likely go through many tests, screenings, and exams before you receive a final diagnosis.
Which Imaging Tests Will Be Performed On My Child?
Since each child is unique with his/her own set of medical issues, there is no way to determine which test would work best for your child. You and your child’s physician will communicate and work together to determine which tests would be the most beneficial in helping to diagnose your child’s condition.
In addition, a pediatric neurologist may work with you and your doctor to determine which imaging tests will suit your child.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). (n.d.). National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering |.
Retrieved from: https://www.nibib.nih.gov/science-education/science-topics/magnetic-resonance-imaging-mri
- Practical guide to neonatal cranial ultrasound (CrUS): basics. (n.d.). ScienceDirect.com | Science, health and medical journals, full text articles and books.
Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1751722218301392
- CT scan. (2020, February 28). Mayo Clinic - Mayo Clinic.
Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ct-scan/about/pac-20393675
- Electroencephalogram (EEG). (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine, based in Baltimore, Maryland.
Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/electroencephalogram-eeg