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Cerebral palsy is a neuromuscular disorder that currently has no cure. Several cerebral palsy treatment options available can improve a child’s daily life, health, and well-being.
Treatment Goals for Cerebral Palsy
Treatment depends upon the type of cerebral palsy your child has, as well as the severity of the condition. Pediatricians, along with specialists, create a plan with treatment goals individualized to a child’s needs.
Although they may differ depending on the severity of the condition, the general goals of a treatment plan typically include ways to:
- Manage medical conditions
- Manage and control pain
- Assist with behavior and social interactions
- Promote independence
- Assistance with eating, bathing, and dressing
- Optimize mobility
- Help with education and learning
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Certain medications help children with cerebral palsy control symptoms, including muscle spasms, uncontrollable limb movements, and seizures. The most common medications prescribed for cerebral palsy include:
- Stool softeners
- Sleep aids
Keep in mind that although medication can be successful, some children will not derive enough benefit from it, and in those instances, surgery may be the next option.
Surgery can help people with cerebral palsy reduce muscle spasticity, increase flexibility, and gain function. However, it’s important to note that surgery isn’t an appropriate option for every child with cerebral palsy, and it also comes with risks.
Your physician will do a complete history and physical examination to determine if your child could potentially benefit from surgery.
There are many types of surgery for children with cerebral palsy. These include procedures on the feet, ankles, legs, hips, wrists, arms, shoulders, or spine. Each child’s circumstance is unique, and their medical team will tailor a treatment plan to their needs.
The treatment team may recommend surgery if the benefits outweigh the risks that come along with it. Some operations carry the potential to create serious medical complications such as infection, bleeding, and loss of vision.
It’s important to remember that surgery will not cure a child’s cerebral palsy. Still, it can help make the disorder more manageable, which can significantly improve function in daily activities, school, and home life.
Complementary and Alternative Treatment Options
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is another modality many parents choose to approach treatment in a more holistic, natural way.
The most common types of CAM treatments for cerebral palsy patients include:
- Energy Therapy. Energy therapy involves manipulating a child’s energy fields to promote energy flow in the body and aid in well-being.
- Movement Therapy. Movement therapy teaches body movements that help promote spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental balance.
- Mind and Body Techniques. Mind and body techniques include massage, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, guided meditation, guided imagery, yoga, breathing exercises, and more.
- Aqua Therapy. Aqua therapy (also known as aquatic or water therapy) promotes physical function and control, improved muscle tone, confidence, and independence.
Different forms of therapy can provide physical, mental, social, and academic benefits for children with cerebral palsy. If started early in a child’s life, many forms of therapy for cerebral palsy can reduce impairment and the risk of developing other conditions often associated with cerebral palsy.
Therapy is usually combined with other treatments, such as medications, surgery, and assistive technology, which further benefit the child. When physicians work with families to determine their child’s medical goals, they then develop an individualized treatment plan.
It’s important to note that therapy can also be benefit parents and caregivers. For example, nutritional therapy can help caregivers understand specific dietary needs, while behavioral therapy can teach parents the benefits of positive reinforcement.
The following forms of therapy are the most common types for children with cerebral palsy.
Physical therapy is one of the most important forms of treatment for children with cerebral palsy. Most physicians recommend physical therapy for all children with cerebral palsy, regardless of how minor or severe the disorder is.
Children diagnosed with cerebral palsy will have various degrees of muscle control, balance, and mobility, depending upon how severe the disorder is. Physical therapy helps with these issues by assisting children with balance, posture, crawling, climbing, walking, and muscle strengthening.
In addition, physical therapy helps children with cerebral palsy to:
- Overcome physical limitations
- Increase independence
- Expand range of motion
- Improve muscle tone
- Decrease the chance of joint contractures and bone deformities
- Use adaptive equipment
- Increase fitness, flexibility, balance, and posture
- Reduce physical discomfort and pain
Occupational therapy helps children improve function when performing daily activities. These include activities in the home, at school or in the community, and later in life, at work. This type of therapy helps children successfully carry out tasks needing to be accomplished each day.
A typical occupational therapy session consists of the child being trained and guided by a therapist to work on exercises that will improve function and help with activities of daily living (ADchild’se child’s current abilities, as well as limitations, will be taken into account to create a customized plan.
Speech and Language Therapy
Children with cerebral palsy often have trouble forming words correctly. Speech and language therapy aims to help children understand language better and communicate more effectively.
A speech and language pathologist implements strategies and tools to help the child communicate successfully. They take individual strengths and weaknesses into account. This can be done through sign language, cues, and the use of augmentative communication devices.
Goals are set for each child who attends speech therapy to help them communicate as effectively as possible.
Aqua therapy helps a child with cerebral palsy to improve muscle tone and physical functioning. It’s especially beneficial for children with cerebral palsy who are unable to walk without assistance.
This type of therapy is an alternative to traditional physical therapy. It takes place in water, typically a swimming pool, and combines both aerobic and anaerobic exercise that’s easy for children with cerebral palsy to perform.
Massage therapy is hugely beneficial to children with cerebral palsy, as it improves muscle tone and function.
Research indicates that massage therapy helps children with cerebral palsy by facilitating the lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and circulatory systems. It can also help children deal with chronic pain due to joint contractures, scoliosis, and spasticity.
Play and Social Therapy
Regardless of disabilities, almost all children enjoy playtime, and play therapy helps them learn to express themselves better. Although playing tends to be natural and comes easily for most children, those with cerebral palsy may find it a bit more challenging than others.
Play and social therapy give parents, caregivers, and loved ones the opportunity to see how the child interacts socially during play. This can be extremely beneficial, especially for children who have difficulties with communication.
According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy helps to establish a therapeutic relationship between the child in therapy and the instructor. Furthermore, children who participate in music therapy may experience improvements in learning, motivation, relaxation, and language skills.
Behavioral therapy helps children that are having difficulties with emotions and who act out through inappropriate behavior. Behavior therapy uses positive reinforcement to help change negative behaviors into more desirable, adaptive behavior patterns.
Therapists help children explore their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions to mediate difficult situations the child is encountering. This helps improve confidence and well-being.
Chiropractic care is considered a complementary form of treatment for cerebral palsy that focuses on musculoskeletal and nervous systems abnormalities. Many parents turn to chiropractic care after failing to find success with more traditional therapies.
Several studies indicate that many children with cerebral palsy experienced positive, dramatic results from chiropractic care.
Chiropractors focus on relieving chronic pain from issues in the back and spine, extremities, and neck, and some children have experienced improvements even after their first session.
Medical marijuana has become increasingly popular in treating various medical problems, including many of the associated disorders of cerebral palsy. Studies indicate that medical marijuana can help reduce seizures, relieve pain, reduce the severity of muscle spasms, and improve speech.
Currently, not all states allow the use of medical marijuana, so it’s important to be aware of the laws in your state before attempting to use it as a potential treatment for your child.
Innovations in Cerebral Palsy Treatment
Researchers continue to work on better solutions for managing, or even one day curing cerebral palsy. These are some of the ongoing areas of research into treating this condition:
- Early diagnosis. Researchers are getting closer to being able to identify infants who will develop cerebral palsy. Earlier diagnosis allows for interventions that can significantly limit disability.
- Systemic hypothermia. One important early intervention involves cooling the infant’s brain to slow or even reverse brain damage that causes cerebral palsy.
- Constraint-induced therapy. CIT is a promising new therapy that involves constraining a child’s stronger limb. This forces the weaker limb to develop more strength.
- Functional electrical stimulation. FES uses electrical currents to stimulate muscles and hopefully restore some movement.
- Botox. Injections of botulinum toxin may help control spastic muscles.
Treatment for cerebral palsy is multifaceted because there is so much variation from one child to the next. Talk to your pediatrician about working with a multidisciplinary team of experts for the best outcomes.
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- National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). What Are Common Treatments for Cerebral Palsy?
Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cerebral-palsy/conditioninfo/treatments
- Cerebral Palsy Treatment & Management: Approach Considerations, Management of Abnormal Movements, Neurosurgery and Orthopedic Surgery. (2019, November 10). Diseases & Conditions - Medscape Reference
Retrieved from: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1179555-treatment
- Cerebral Palsy: 4 Treatments to Try Before Surgery. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine, Based in Baltimore, Maryland.
Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/cerebral-palsy/cerebral-palsy-4-treatments-to-try-before-surgery
- Cerebral Palsy Medication: Neuromuscular Blockers, Botulinum Toxins, Muscle Relaxants, Benzodiazepines, Anticholinergic Agents, Dopamine Prodrugs, Anticonvulsant Agents, Alpha2 Adrenergic Agonist Agents. (2019, November 10). Diseases & Conditions - Medscape Reference.
Retrieved from: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1179555-medication
- Surgery for Cerebral Palsy in Children. (n.d.). Patient Care at NYU Langone Health.
Retrieved from: https://nyulangone.org/conditions/cerebral-palsy-in-children/treatments/surgery-for-cerebral-palsy-in-children
- ON THE TREATMENT OF CEREBRAL PALSY. (1962, April 1). American Academy of Pediatrics.
Retrieved from: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/29/4/605
- National Institutes of Health. (2021, September 29). Cerebral Palsy: Hope Through Research.
Retrieved from: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Cerebral-Palsy-Hope-Through-Research#3104_24