Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a group of neurological disorders. It is caused by damage to the immature, developing brain, usually before birth. CP can have a broad range of effects. People with CP may have trouble seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, or communicating. Difficulties can range from mild to severe. CP also typically affects movement, muscle coordination, and balance. This can result in problems moving and walking, abnormal muscle tone, exaggerated reflexes, and involuntary movements. There is no cure for CP, but early treatment can help.
Physical therapy is one of the most important forms of treatment for children with CP. PT can help children improve their movement skills, stay active, and perform daily tasks. PT can also help prevent movement problems from getting worse over time and reduce physical discomfort. Let’s look at a few of the ways PT can be helpful:
Take Advantage of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the neurons and neural networks in the brain to form new connections and change their behavior. This can help the brain to adapt or “train” other areas to take over the function that the damaged part was intended to do. Neuroplasticity is highest during the first few years of life, when the brain is still developing and forming new connections. This means that early intervention PT can have a greater impact on the brain’s ability to reorganize and learn new skills.
Early PT can help children with CP enhance neuroplasticity by providing exercises and activities that stimulate and challenge their brain and nervous system. This could involve playing with children in different positions that challenge their balance and stability, encouraging the use of affected limbs, or using different forms of sensory stimulation.
Improve Motor Skills and Function
Children with CP often have difficulty with motor skills and function due to muscle spasticity, weakness, or stiffness.
PT helps children with CP improve their motor skills and function by providing exercises and activities that target the large muscles in the arms, legs, and abdomen. For example, a physical therapist may use strength training, stretching, or balance training to improve the child’s muscle tone, range of motion, and stability. For young children, a PT might also use functional training techniques like crawling, climbing, walking, or propelling a wheelchair to improve the child’s mobility and independence.
Prevent or Delay Secondary Complications
Secondary complications are problems caused or are worsened by the primary diagnosis of CP. These can include muscle atrophy, loss of range of motion, muscle spasticity, pain, joint inflammation, and contractures. Secondary complications affect the child’s daily function, health status, and quality of life.
PT can help children with CP prevent or delay secondary complications by providing exercises and activities that maintain or improve their physical health and functioning. Examples include massage or stretching to relax and lengthen the muscles, positioning devices to improve posture, or braces, splints, or orthotics to support and align the affected joints.
Increase Quality of Life and Well-being
Movement limitations and environmental barriers can affect the self-esteem, confidence, and social relationships of children who have CP.
PT can improve the quality of life and well-being of children with CP by providing exercises and activities that are tailored to their individual needs and goals. Adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches, or bicycles can help the child access their community and enjoy recreational activities. A physical therapist will also work with the child’s family and other professionals to provide education and support for the child’s overall health and development.
Early physical therapy is a vital form of treatment for children with cerebral palsy. It can help them take advantage of neuroplasticity, improve motor skills and function, prevent or delay secondary complications, and increase their quality of life and well-being. PT can help kids with CP be as independent, comfortable, and healthy as possible.