Diseases That Can Be Mistaken for Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy describes a neurologic disorder caused by brain damage usually sustained during fetal development or delivery. The damage to the brain interferes with muscle coordination and body movements causing delayed development in infants. Symptoms of cerebral palsy include a lack of muscle coordination, stiff or tight muscles, a drop foot, an unbalanced gait, crouched walking, walking on the toes, a lack of muscle tone, excessive drooling, tremors and difficulty with tasks requiring precise movements like buttoning a shirt. Doctors often mistake many other diseases with similar symptoms for cerebral palsy; however, one of the most distinguishing characteristics is that cerebral palsy is not degenerative, meaning symptoms do not worsen over time.

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Pelizaeus-Merzbacher Disease

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, classified as a rare genetic disorder, belongs to the group of diseases known as leukodystrophies. Leukodystrophies affect the growth of myelin—the fatty substance which surrounds nerves throughout the body and brain. Like cerebral palsy, Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease causes muscle weakness and a lack of coordination resulting in delayed development as described by the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke.

Although the symptoms of Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease often cause a mistaken initial diagnosis of cerebral palsy, several differences distinguish the two disorders. Cerebral palsy occurs due to brain damage, while Pelizaeus-Merzbacher occurs due to a genetic mutation that affects the production of a myelin protein. Pelizaeus-Merzbacher is a degenerative disease causing symptoms to progressively worsen over time while cerebral palsy symptoms remain the same.

Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, CMT, is the most common neurological disorder, according to the Charcot-Marie Tooth Association, affecting approximately 2.6 million people world-wide. Although symptoms of CMT, including muscle weakness, a drop foot, an unbalanced gait and tremors, resemble cerebral palsy causing a mistaken diagnosis, the two disorders possess different characteristics.

CMT is a progressive neurological disease affecting the nerves that control the muscles, unlike cerebral palsy that affects the brain. CMT causes a loss of nerve function resulting in a tingling or burning sensation, neuropathic pain and a sensory loss.

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that mostly affects females, causes developmental delays often noticed in the first three years, similar to cerebral palsy. The early signs of balance and coordination problems, the inability to reach for things and trouble walking often lead to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy by mistake.

Rett syndrome, classified as one of the autism spectrum disorders, occurs due to a genetic mutation found on the X chromosome, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Infants with Rett syndrome often develop normally at first, but then cease developing even losing skills already obtained. Those with Rett syndrome often exhibit stereotypical hand movements such as hand wringing as well as showing signs of anxiety, social and behavior problems and intellectual disabilities.