Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that can cause a number of different disabilities and associated conditions with a range of severities. Every child with this condition is unique, but a common, underlying symptom is difficulty with mobility. Many children struggle to walk at all, easily, or without pain. Surgery has long been used as one strategy to help correct some of the movement challenges in individuals with cerebral palsy, but there is now evidence that one particular procedure really does help children improve walking.
Treating Cerebral Palsy with Surgery
While cerebral palsy cannot currently be cured, doctors and specialists use a number of treatments and therapies to help relieve symptoms. Often a major target of therapies is mobility. Children with this condition struggle to varying degrees with mobility and walking. Some cannot walk at all while others need treatments to walk better or assistive devices.
Surgery can help improve mobility and reduce the pain associated with bone, joint, and muscle abnormalities. Orthopedic surgeries, for instance, are often used to reposition joints and bones. Surgery can also lengthen tendons and muscles. When other surgeries and treatments provide only limited help, procedures to cut specific nerves can provide some relief.
The Effectiveness of Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy
Selective dorsal rhizotomy is a procedure that severs nerves. Until recently it has been reserved for severe cases and for children for whom other procedures have been of limited or no help in relieving pain and improving mobility. The surgery is irreversible and can lead to numbness, which have made it controversial. Furthermore, there has been a lack of real evidence from studies that it actually works or helps patients.
Now, research from the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, along with NIHR Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Biomedical Research Centre and King’s College London is helping to better understand the benefits of a drastic procedure. A selective dorsal rhizotomy procedure involves cutting nerves from the legs to the spinal cord. This is supposed to relieve pain and stiffness and make walking easier.
Until the present study out of the United Kingdom, whether or not this really provides benefits was uncertain. The researchers tracked 137 children who underwent the procedure and collected information for two years. They found that the surgery did in fact relieve pain and improve mobility. It also crucially improved quality of life for the children. The health risks of the surgery were found to be minimal and well worth the benefits and positive outcomes.
The research evidence was so strong that the NHS decided to fund selective dorsal rhizotomies for certain children found to be good candidates for the procedure. Children who can walk but struggle with stiffness, pain, and movement control can be considered for the surgery.
There may be no overall cure for cerebral palsy, but treating and managing the symptoms and associated disabilities can help children grow into healthier, more independent adults. The surgery to sever nerves was long considered risky and drastic, but now there is strong evidence that it really does make life easier and more comfortable for some children living with cerebral palsy.