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Physical therapy is often the first step in treating cerebral palsy. It can help improve motor skills and can prevent movement problems from getting worse over time. Physical therapy implements strength and flexibility exercises, heat treatment, massages and special equipment to give children with cerebral palsy more independence.
The extent to which physical therapy helps depends on the severity and type of each case of cerebral palsy. Children with milder cases of CP may only require some physical therapy to treat their condition. In more severe cases, it may be used alongside other treatments or medications. Beginning physical therapy as early as possible usually gives children the best chances at improvement.
There are many benefits of physical therapy, from improving mobility to preventing future issues such as contractures and joint dislocations by keeping the body strong and flexible. Many children with CP increase their level of self-reliance through physical therapy.
Physical therapy can improve:
The types of exercises used vary and have specific benefits for each type of cerebral palsy. Some of the benefits by cerebral palsy type include:
Physical therapists also tailor treatment based on the location of movement issues. Movement issues in children with cerebral palsy can be limited to one half of the body (hemiplegia), the legs (diplegia) or in the torso and all four limbs (quadriplegia). Therapists prescribe special exercises and routines for hemiplegia, diplegia and quadriplegia that may help the child regain movement in the affected area over time.
Physical therapy can also treat a range of other issues experienced by children with CP, including:
Physical therapy is different for every child with cerebral palsy. First, the therapist has to evaluate the child’s movement problems to create a treatment plan. Then, generally, a combination of exercises, muscle relaxing techniques and special equipment is used to improve movement. The degree to which physical therapy can improve a child’s specific issues depends on the severity of the condition.
Exercises for cerebral palsy are geared toward treating either high or low muscle tone. High muscle tone causes stiffness and spasticity, whereas low muscle tone causes too much flexibility and weakness.
Flexibility exercises and massages are often used for children with spastic cerebral palsy; these exercises not only help improve mobility, but also can prevent painful muscle tightening that could require surgical correction. Strength training exercises are used to increase muscle tone in children with athetoid cerebral palsy.
Special exercises are also used to help with walking, posture, transitional movements and sensory impairments like touch and balance. Posture is improved through exercises that emphasize sitting, kneeling and standing. Transitional movements are those used by infants that lead to walking, such as rolling over and sitting up.
Physical therapists use a range of mobility aids to make therapy more effective. Braces, casts, splints and shoe inserts are types of orthotic equipment used to help with walking, posture and joint mobility.
Physical therapy also often includes the following tools:
In some cases, electric stimulation is used to improve gait and upper limb function. This therapy uses small electrodes to stimulate certain muscles.
As children get older, their physical therapy needs change. Physical therapists have to adjust and adapt treatments at different stages in development. The most important stages are when the child is a toddler and in the early school years.
Parents looking for a therapist need to find someone who has experience treating children with cerebral palsy. Physical therapists with experience treating CP understand the unique needs of these children and can tailor an individualized treatment regimen.
Physical therapists use observation and a series of standardized tests to measure motor function. They look for specific postures and movements that could be corrected, and develop a physical therapy plan for your child. It can be hard to find a physical therapist who has experience treating children with cerebral palsy. However, parents should never settle for an inexperienced therapist.
To learn more about how to locate a physical therapist, try downloading our free Cerebral Palsy Guide, which includes over 60 pages of in-depth information for children and parents of a child with CP.
Kimberlee is a writer and researcher who is passionate about helping children with disabilities enjoy a happy, healthy life. She works closely with our attorneys to create content that educates the families and caretakers of children with cerebral palsy.