High muscle tone, or hypertonia, is a condition that causes tight muscles and stiff or rigid movements. It is especially common in cerebral palsy patients. Symptoms of high muscle tone include loss of function and limited range of motion, causing a child to have issues properly sitting or standing up. However, cerebral palsy is not the only cause of hypertonia. Read more to learn about what to do if you think your child has hypertonia possibly caused by cerebral palsy.
Cerebral Palsy & High Muscle Tone
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control motor functions, such as muscle tone. This is especially true in the most common form of CP that accounts for 70% of all cases — spastic cerebral palsy.
Muscle tone in cerebral palsy patients can be low, high, or a combination of both. The type of muscle tone abnormality a person experiences is based on the severity and location of damage to the brain.
High muscle tone is called hypertonia and is often seen within the first 18 months of life. Hypertonia causes too much muscle tone which causes arms or legs to be stiff and, therefore, difficult to move.
Hypertonia doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the muscles, but rather that the brain cannot voluntarily control them. This causes the muscles to over- or under-develop, leading to high or low muscle tone.
Since their muscles are constantly contracting, cerebral palsy patients with hypertonia tend to have stiff or rigid movements.
What Causes High Muscle Tone?
Although hypertonia in cerebral palsy patients is common, high muscle tone does not always mean your child has developed cerebral palsy.
Other conditions that are linked with high muscle tone are:
- Brain bleeds
- In-utero strokes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Toxins in the brain
Traumatic birth injuries or injury to the spinal cord can also cause hypertonia to occur. Birth trauma may be preventable with proper care during childbirth.
Treatment for High Muscle Tone
If high muscle tone is not managed correctly, it can limit a child’s range of motion and overall independence. This is the result of consistently pulling the body into abnormal positions due to muscle spasticity.
Severe cases of hypertonia may cause joints to become frozen (joint contractures). Very high muscle tone can also cause secondary conditions such as scoliosis or hip displacement.
One of the most common types of treatment for high muscle tone is physical therapy.
Physical therapy for high muscle tone includes:
- Exercises to relax tight muscles
- Muscle stretching for pain and tightness
- Strength training
- Weight training
Another option for treating high muscle tone includes managing the patient’s posture by relaxing them, which can help the body naturally fall into more comfortable positions.
Your child’s doctor may also prescribe muscle-relaxing medications such as baclofen, diazepam, and dantrolene. These drugs can be used to reduce muscle tightness and spastic movements.
Orthotics — medical devices that help correct musculoskeletal abnormalities — may also be beneficial for children with high muscle tone. Orthotics can hold limbs in place to ensure the correct muscles are stretched.
Another important treatment for high muscle tone is practicing daily activities with your child under guidance from their healthcare provider. Helping your child practice movement involved in daily living can allow them to complete these activities on their own.
Diagnosing The Cause of Your Child’s Hypertonia
Hypertonia is usually noticeable within the child’s first 18 months of life as their bodies start to develop. One of the tell-tale signs of high muscle tone is developmental delays with fine and gross motor skills.
Hypertonia signs and symptoms may include:
- Crossed or scissored legs
- Fisted hand after 6 months of age
- Joint and muscle pain
- Lack of flexibility
- Moving slowly and rigidly
- Musculoskeletal deformities
- Spasms/involuntary movements
- Walking in abnormal patterns
Since the symptoms of hypertonia are different for each patient, it is essential to talk with your child’s doctor. This is the best and only way to diagnose the cause of your child’s high muscle tone.
You can expect your child’s doctor to examine their symptoms. If the doctor believes your child suffered from trauma during birth, they will conduct brain imaging tests such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computer tomography) scans to diagnose cerebral palsy. From there, your doctor can determine the cause of your child’s symptoms and start treatment.
If you believe your child suffered a preventable injury during birth, contact one of our registered nurse advocates. They’ll listen to your story and help you determine the best course of action.