Back Arching and Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis, Patient Care

infant girl with arched back crying uncontrollably in mothers arms

When a baby or child is crying, they often engage in other physical behaviors that indicate their frustration with a situation. While back arching can indicate minor physical pain or distress, it can also indicate a more serious medical condition. If your child is arching their back while crying severely and cannot be consoled, they may be experiencing more acute pain that should be identified and treated.

Potential Causes of Arched Back Crying

A baby will typically arch their back while crying when they are experiencing pain that is more significant than gas, teething, or other similar conditions of growth and development. Colic is one cause, which is a generic condition that includes a wide range of gastrointestinal problems that can cause discomfort. Babies with severe cases of colic can experience intense pain, often resulting in arched back crying, although colic will generally resolve on its own as the child continues to develop.

Infants may also experience gastroesophageal reflux, also referred to as acid reflux. It’s a similar condition to what adults may experience when eating certain foods, resulting in the backup of food mixed with stomach acid that causes burning and pain. If your baby typically engages in arched back crying after feeding, this may be the cause.

Cerebral palsy is another reason why a baby or child might be arching their back while crying intensely. This movement disorder is caused by damage to the brain of a fetus while in utero or a baby that has just been born. When an injury occurs that causes significant brain damage, the body is no longer able to coordinate or control muscle movements through impulse signals.

Types of Cerebral Palsy

Since there are several types of cerebral palsy, it’s helpful to know what to look for to determine whether CP may be to blame for your child’s arched back crying. The most common type is known as spastic cerebral palsy, which causes involuntary contractions and rigidity of the muscles throughout the body. Back arching is generally indicative of the spastic form of the disorder, and it can be one of the earliest warning signs of CP in a newborn baby.

Another type of cerebral palsy is dyskinetic, which makes up an estimated 10-20% of the diagnosed cases. Dyskinetic CP includes three types of involuntary movements, which are choreic, athetoid, and dystonic, although the patient doesn’t have to experience all three types to be diagnosed with this form of CP. Ataxic CP is a less common form that occurs when the balance centers of the brain are damaged. Those with ataxic cerebral palsy may shake or wobble when trying to move, struggle with coordination, or experience overshooting or undershooting of muscles.

Other warning signs of cerebral palsy in babies and toddlers include overly strong reflexes, muscles that are more loose or relaxed than they should be, and trouble swallowing or moving their eyes.

Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy from Back Arching

If your child arches their back and cries, you should take them in for a check-up with a healthcare provider. Certain conditions that cause this reaction can be treated, helping the baby to experience relief. If cerebral palsy is suspected, a qualified healthcare provider can perform diagnostic testing to determine whether it may be the cause and prescribe treatments to reduce pain.

Your child’s healthcare provider may perform a physical assessment to look at their motor skills, reflexes, posture, and muscle tone as well as review their medical history. Since many instances of cerebral palsy occur when the baby is in utero, the provider may also talk to the mother about the pregnancy and any known injuries or issues.

Seeing a specialist can provide more detailed insights into your child’s condition and prognosis. Some of the healthcare specialists who can diagnose and care for children with CP include developmental and neurodevelopmental pediatricians, pediatric rehabilitation doctors, and child neurologists. These providers may recommend brain imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, to determine the function of the brain, along with genetic testing, metabolic testing, and/or an electroencephalogram.

Most children with CP are diagnosed within the first two years of their lives. However, those with milder symptoms may not be diagnosed right away, as their caregivers won’t always notice minor muscle contractions or other signs. Early intervention can help children with cerebral palsy participate in therapy and other programs that may help them overcome the challenges associated with this movement disorder.

Understanding the symptoms of cerebral palsy could help in diagnosing this medical condition sooner. Advances in treatment have benefited those with cerebral palsy, although it’s still a challenging diagnosis that can have a significant financial and emotional impact on those impacted and their caregivers, particularly when it could have been avoided. The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC have worked with thousands of families to determine whether their child’s CP was a result of medical malpractice. If you have legal questions, contact us for more information.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?