Updated clinical guidelines for the early diagnosis and management of cerebral palsy have been issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Coauthored with the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine, the report builds on new evidence for improved care and outcomes since the 2006 consensus guidelines.
Cerebral palsy, the most common neuromotor disorder of childhood, is often accompanied by cognitive impairments, epilepsy, sensory impairments, behavioral problems, communication difficulties, breathing and sleep problems, gastrointestinal and nutritional problems, and bone and orthopedic problems.
In the United States, the estimated prevalence of cerebral palsy ranges from 1.5 to 4 per 1,000 live births.
“Early identification and initiation of evidence-based motor therapies can improve outcomes by taking advantage of the neuroplasticity in the infant brain,” said the guideline authors in an executive summary.
The guideline, published in Pediatrics, is directed to primary care physicians with pediatrics, family practice, or internal medicine training. “It’s a much more comprehensive overview of the important role that primary care providers play in the lifetime care of people with cerebral palsy,” explained Garey Noritz, MD, chair of the 2021-2022 Executive Committee of the Council on Children with Disabilities. Dr. Noritz, a professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University and division chief of the complex health care program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, both in Columbus, said: “The combined efforts of the primary care physician and specialty providers are needed to achieve the best outcomes.”
The AAP recommends that primary care pediatricians, neonatologists, and other specialists caring for hospitalized newborns recognize those at high risk of cerebral palsy, diagnose them as early as possible, and promptly refer them for therapy. Primary care physicians are advised to identifyearly by formalizing standardized developmental surveillance and screening at 9, 18, and 30 months, and to implement family-centered care across multiple specialists.
“If a motor disorder is suspected, primary care physicians should simultaneously begin a medical evaluation, refer to a specialist for definitive diagnosis, and to therapists for treatment,” Dr. Noritz emphasized.
“The earlier any possible movement disorder is recognized and intervention begins, the better a child can develop a gait pattern and work toward living an independent life, said Manish N. Shah, MD, associate professor of pediatric neurosurgery at the University of Texas, Houston, who was not involved in developing the guidelines.
For children in whom physical therapy and medication have not reduced leg spasticity, a minimally invasive spinal procedure can help release contracted tendons and encourage independent walking. The optimal age for selective dorsal rhizotomy is about 4 years, said Dr. Shah, who is director of the Texas Comprehensive Spasticity Center at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. “You can turn these children into walkers. As adults, they can get jobs, have their own families. It’s life-changing.”
Importantly, the guidelines address the health care disparities leading to a higher prevalence of cerebral palsy in Black children and in those from families with lower socioeconomic status. “Efforts to combat racism and eliminate barriers to culturally sensitive prenatal, perinatal, and later pediatric care may help to improve outcomes for all children with cerebral palsy,” the authors said.
“Every child with cerebral palsy needs an individual plan, but only 30% or 40% are getting interventions,” said Dr. Shah. The updated guidelines could help payers rethink the 15-20 visits a year that are often approved, compared with the 2-3 visits per week that are needed for speech, physical, and occupational therapy, he pointed out.
“Financial issues often compromise the interdisciplinary and coordinated care associated with favorable outcomes in children with cerebral palsy,” said Heidi Feldman, MD, PhD, a developmental and behavioral pediatric specialist at Stanford (Calif.) Medicine Children’s Health’s Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services. “With a new guideline, there may be greater willingness to fund these essential services.”
In the meantime, the AAP recommends that pediatricians advise families about available medical, social, and educational services, such as early intervention services, the Title V Maternal and Child Health block grant program, and special education services through the public school system.
Children with cerebral palsy need the same standardized primary care as any child, including the full schedule of recommended vaccinations and vision and hearing testing. They also need to be monitored and treated for the many problems that commonly co-occur, including chronic pain.
When secondary complications arise, the frequency of visits should increase.
Pneumonia, the leading cause of death in children and adolescents with cerebral palsy, can be prevented or minimized through immunization against respiratory diseases and screening for signs and symptoms of aspiration and sleep-disordered breathing.
The AAP also recommends that symptoms or functional declines undergo full investigation into other potential causes.
Since the sedentary lifestyle associated with cerebral palsy is now known to be related to the higher rates of cardiovascular complications in this patient population, the AAP recommends more attention be paid to physical activity and a healthy diet early in life. Pediatricians are advised to help families locate suitable opportunities for adaptive sports and recreation.
Almost 50% of children and adolescents with cerebral palsy have intellectual disability, 60%-80% have difficulty speaking, and about 25% are nonverbal. To address this, pediatricians should maximize the use of augmentative and alternative communication devices and involve experts in speech and language pathology, according to the guidelines.
“Many individuals with cerebral palsy and severe motor limitations have active, creative minds, and may need assistive technology, such as electronic talking devices, to demonstrate that mental life,” said Dr. Feldman. “Primary care clinicians should advocate for assistive technology.”
For challenging behavior, especially in the patient with limited verbal skills, potential nonbehavioral culprits such as constipation, esophageal reflux disease, and musculoskeletal or dental pain must be ruled out.
In the lead-up to adolescence, youth with cerebral palsy must be prepared for puberty, menstruation, and healthy, safe sexual relationships, much like their nonaffected peers. Since a disproportionate number of children with cerebral palsy experience neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, however, family stressors should be identified and caregivers referred for support services.
For the transition from pediatric to adult health care, the AAP recommends that structured planning begin between 12 and 14 years of age. Before transfer, the pediatrician should prepare a comprehensive medical summary with the input of the patient, parent/guardian, and pediatric subspecialists.
Without a proper handoff, “there is an increased risk of morbidity, medical complications, unnecessary emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and procedures,” the authors warned.
Transitions are likely to run more smoothly when youth are given the opportunity to understand their medical condition and be involved in decisions about their health. With this in mind, the AAP recommends that pediatricians actively discourage overprotective parents from getting in the way of their child developing “maximal independence.”
No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed by the authors, Dr. Shah, or Dr. Feldman.
*This story was updated on Nov. 28, 2022.