Diagnosing Neurologic Disorders in Children: Possible Tests

Diagnosing Neurologic Disorders in Children: Possible Tests

This sheet describes possible tests used to diagnose and gather information about neurologic disorders in children. Your child’s healthcare provider will tell you which of these tests your child needs. 

Man and woman sitting at desk with healthcare provider discussing information in medical chart.
Your child’s healthcare provider can go over test information with you and answer any questions.

  • Angiogram (also called an arteriogram): a procedure that checks the health of the blood vessels (arteries or veins) going to and inside the brain. During the procedure, a catheter (thin plastic tube) is placed in a blood vessel. Fluid called contrast dye is used to make the blood vessels show up clearly on x-rays. Specialized angiograms can also be done in combination with CT or MRI (see below).

  • CT (computed tomography) scan: a test that combines x-rays and computer technology to form detailed pictures of the brain. Radiation is used during the test.

  • EEG (electroencephalography): a test that records the electrical activity of the brain. During the test, round discs with wires (electrodes) are placed on the scalp with glue or paste. The electrodes transmit electrical signals that record electrical brain activity.

  • EMG (electromyography): a test done to check muscle and nerve function in the arms and legs. During the test, small needle electrodes are placed in certain muscles. As your child rests and tightens these muscles, the electrical activity is recorded. This test is often done with a nerve conduction study (see below).

  • Evoked potentials: tests that check how fast and well the body’s nerves respond to specific types of sensory stimulation. These can include flashing lights, loud sounds, or electrical signals sent to the arms and legs. During the test, electrodes are placed on the skin. The electrical activity is then recorded.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan: a test that uses strong magnets, radio waves, and computer technology to form detailed pictures of the brain. No radiation is used during the test.

  • NCS (nerve conduction study): a test that checks the function of the nerves in the arms and legs. During the test, electrodes are placed on the skin along the pathways of certain nerves. An electrical current is then used to stimulate these nerves. The electrical activity is recorded.

  • PET (positron emission tomography): a test that uses computer technology to take a picture of brain activity rather than brain structure. During the test, a glucose-based compound is injected into the bloodstream. The compound helps highlight areas of high and low brain activity in the picture.

  • Spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture): a procedure that checks the health of the brain, meninges, and spinal cord by analyzing the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). During the test, the low back is numbed. A needle is then inserted into the spinal canal and a sample of CSF is drawn for analysis.

  • Transcranial Doppler (TCD): a test that uses high-frequency sound waves to show the flow of blood through the blood vessels in the brain.

  • Ultrasound: a test that uses sound waves to form a picture of the brain.

Helping Your Child Prepare

Many hospitals have persons trained in helping children cope with their medical care or hospital experience. These persons are often called child life specialists. Check with your child’s healthcare provider if child life programs or other similar services are available for your child. There are also things you can do to help your child prepare for a test or procedure. How best to do this depends on your child’s needs. Start with the tips below:

  • Use brief and simple terms to describe the test to your child and why it’s being done. Younger children tend to have a short attention span, so do this shortly before the test. Older children can be given more time to understand the test in advance.

  • Tell your child what to expect in the hospital during the test. For instance, you could mention who will be performing the test and what the hospital room will look like.

  • Make sure your child understands which body parts will be involved in the test.

  • As best you can, describe how the test will feel. For instance, an electrode may be placed on the skin. The electrode is round and may feel sticky.

  • Allow your child to ask questions and answer these questions truthfully. Your child may feel nervous or afraid. He or she may even cry. Let your child know that you’ll be nearby during the test.

  • Use play when telling your child about the test, if appropriate. With younger children, this can involve role-playing with a child’s favorite toy or object. With older children, it may help to read books or show pictures of what happens during the test.