Osteopathic medicine is a specialized area of medicine practiced by trained medical professionals. One of the most important tools these doctors use is called osteopathic manipulation therapy, or OMT. It is a gentle manipulation of the musculoskeletal system that is supposed to relieve symptoms and improve overall wellness in patients.
There is limited research into how OMT can help children with cerebral palsy, but some studies have been done and the results are mixed. Some show that it can help, while others cast doubt on these results. Many of the studies are small or limited in some way, but there is some evidence that OMT can help children with cerebral palsy move better and feel better.
What are Osteopathic Medicine and OMT?
A doctor of osteopathic medicine, also known as a DO, is a licensed physician, similar to an MD, or medical doctor. They have the same training and ability to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications to patients, but they also went to school to learn a unique way to practice medicine. DOs take a holistic and a preventative approach with patients and they also focus on the musculoskeletal system, how it is related to disease and how it can be manipulated for treatment.
The philosophy of osteopathic medicine is that all the systems of the body are connected and that this connection impacts disease and wellness. An important part of osteopathic medicine is a hands-on approach called osteopathic manipulation therapy. DOs perform OMT by physically manipulating the body with their hands. They use stretching and gentle pressure to manipulate joints and muscles. The most common uses for OMT are for musculoskeletal disorders like back and neck pain or sports-related injuries. Some DOs use the technique for all types of conditions, citing a healing touch as crucial to well ness.
OMT and Cerebral Palsy
Because children with cerebral palsy suffer from a variety of symptoms related to the musculoskeletal system, OMT is often used as an alternative or complementary therapy. It is sometimes used as a complement to more traditional therapies like physical and occupational therapies, surgery, and pain medication. The purposes of using OMT for these children are multiple: to relieve symptoms, to relieve pain, to improve mobility, to reduce spasticity, and more. The question of whether or not OMT works for children with cerebral palsy has been addressed in several medical and research studies.
Cranial Osteopathy and Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Cranial osteopathy is the application of OMT to the head and neck. It is a subtle and gentle type of manipulation of the skull that is most often used in babies but that can also be used in children and adults. A study investigated the usefulness of this treatment for children with spastic cerebral palsy enlisting 55 participants with spasticity ranging from moderate to severe and ages ranging from 20 months to 12 years.
The 55 children were split into three groups: a control group that was wait-listed for treatment, a group that received acupuncture, and a group that received cranial osteopathic manipulation along with myofascial release, a therapy that manipulates the fascia, the thin connective tissue in the body. The children were then evaluated based on eleven outcomes.
The results showed that the children receiving acupuncture did not have any significantly positive outcomes, but that those in the cranial osteopathy group did, when compared to the control group. They saw positive outcomes on two measures: the total Gross Motor Function Measurement and the mobility part of the Functional Independence Measure for Children. In other words, these children did see some improvement in overall motor function and mobility.
OMT and Constipation in Children with Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral palsy can cause a number of associated conditions, often including gastrointestinal disorders. One of these that some children struggle with is chronic constipation. A small study of OMT in these children included 13 participants, all of whom were diagnosed with both cerebral palsy and chronic constipation. One half of the group received OMT while the other half received OMT and traditional medical treatment for constipation. The results of the study showed that children in both groups saw equally positive benefits and improvements in constipation symptoms. This means that OMT may be a valid alternative to traditional medicine for children with cerebral palsy and constipation.
Skepticism over Cranial Osteopathy and Cerebral Palsy
One of the most recent and larger studies investigating the use of OMT, specifically cranial manipulation, in children with cerebral palsy has cast doubt over the treatment’s effectiveness. British researchers published the results of a study using cranial osteopathy for a group of 142 participants. Half of the children received the treatment while the other half was placed in a control group. The treatment was carried out for six months.
The researchers found that there were no statistically significant improvements in the children’s movement when evaluated after the treatment period, as compared to the children from the control group. One difference that they did find was that 38 percent of the parents in the treatment group rated their children as having a better overall wellbeing after treatment. This is compared to 19 percent of parents who made the same rating from the control group.
This parental result is similar to what was found in an earlier study. In this study, 50 children with spastic cerebral palsy participated and were separated into control, acupuncture, and OMT groups. The results were evaluated based on parent reports. All of the parents of children in the OMT group reported that they perceived their children to have positive gains, as compared to just a few parents in the control group. Positive results that parents reported included better sleep, better use of arms and legs, and improved mood.
OMT may or may not help children with cerebral palsy, and exactly how it may help can vary from child to child. The good news is that, as long as it is administered by a licensed DO, there is little to no risk of side effects or complications with this type of therapy. Parents can try OMT with their children and not have to worry about any risks or harm. If it helps, it may not matter what the research says.