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Surgery is one of the many options available to help children with cerebral palsy improve mobility, posture and ensure healthy growth. Most doctors recommend physical therapy and medication before surgery.
Surgery can correct or improve movement and alignment in the legs, ankles, feet, hips, wrists and arms. These operations are performed on the muscles, tendons, bones and nerves.
As is the goal with all treatment of cerebral palsy, surgery aims to give children the greatest chance of living as independently as possible. Movement problems caused by cerebral palsy can improve over time, but they also carry the risk of getting worse.
Surgery is used to:
It’s impossible to offer a one-size-fits-all treatment plan for children with cerebral palsy—a surgery that is successful in one scenario may not be in another. Additionally, the potential benefits must be greater than the risks at stake.
For example, children who are able to walk with or without assistance tend to have better results from surgery than non-ambulatory children. Therefore, parents of non-ambulatory children may not want to put their child through surgery if there is a lower chance of correcting movement.
Parents considering surgery to improve their child’s well-being should be aware of the risks and benefits involved.
There are a variety of procedures that can correct many issues and secondary conditions of cerebral palsy. Orthopedic surgery is generally used to improve movement, posture and gait. Other surgeries may be used to correct co-occurring conditions, such as issues with feeding or hearing impairment.
Orthopedic surgery (also spelled orthopaedic) is a type of surgery that is used to improve mobility. These procedures are beneficial in treating spasticity, or jerky, exaggerated movements. This surgery is usually suggested after previous therapies and medications have proven unsuccessful. Orthopedic surgery can also prevent future complications, such as contractures and hip dislocations.
If your child is exhibiting rotational abnormalities, joint dislocation, pain or problems when wearing shoes, orthopedic surgery may be able to help improve their condition and overall comfortability.
The 6 main types of orthopedic procedures are:
The type of orthopedic surgery that would be best for your child depends mostly on whether they are considered to be ambulatory or not. An ambulatory child is able to walk around independently, whereas a non-ambulatory child requires mobility aids, such as crutches, walkers or wheelchairs, in order to move about.
Ambulatory children are able to walk, however they may have a tendency to step mostly on their toes, cross their hips while walking or bend their knees when taking strides. These issues can be caused by tight muscles, weakness or misalignment of the joints or bones.
The purpose of surgery for ambulatory children is to improve their ability to walk, which is essential to improving self-reliance. For example, a child who “toe-walks” may have their stride corrected with a tenotomy or tendon lengthening procedure. Orthopedic surgery can also correct issues caused by poor alignment of the hips or knees.
Non-ambulatory children are unable to walk on their own, which is why the goal of orthopedic surgery is more centered around increasing comfort and avoiding any further mobility complications.
Orthopedic surgery is used to stop certain complications from getting worse. Surgeries correcting spinal curvature, hip dislocations and contractures alleviate pain and promote a comfortable, well-aligned sitting position. Osteotomy may be used to fuse bones in the spine to correct severe scoliosis.
The benefits of orthopedic surgery aren’t immediate. Children often require physical therapy to ensure a successful recovery and to keep muscles strong and flexible.
Selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) is an aggressive procedure that helps reduce pain and spasticity. It is the only surgery that permanently reduces spasticity. SDR is typically recommended in severe cases of spasticity when other treatments have failed to make an impact. Children with spasticity in the legs (spastic diplegia) tend to benefit more than children with spasticity in other locations (quadriplegia, hemiplegia).
Selective dorsal rhizotomy gets to the root of spasticity issues by cutting the nerves in the spinal column responsible for muscle stiffness. This procedure requires navigating the complex network of nerves to pinpoint which nerves are causing movement issues. SDR can be used to relax muscles in the upper and lower limbs.
Selective dorsal rhizotomy improves:
Recovery from selective dorsal rhizotomy requires intensive physical therapy to relearn muscle control and movement.
Cerebral palsy affects every child differently, and most children who have it experience secondary conditions, such as hearing loss or acid reflux. These secondary conditions can be a result of movement problems caused by cerebral palsy, or they may be a direct result of the brain injury experienced at birth.
Many children with cerebral palsy have a hearing impairment. Those with severe hearing loss may benefit from cochlear implants—a surgically implanted hearing device. Congenital hearing impairment (loss of hearing present at birth) can be caused by the same factors that cause cerebral palsy, such as oxygen deprivation during birth. As many as 15 percent of children with CP have a hearing impairment.
Children with low muscle tone often have issues with feeding. Their lack of muscle control can make it hard for them to swallow and chew. They may also have severe acid reflux or experience aspiration (food and drink entering the lungs) as a result of low muscle tone. Children can avoid these complications by having a feeding tube surgically implanted. For children with severe cerebral palsy, this may be the only way they can stay healthy. It also makes feeding time less demanding for parents. For children with less severe diagnoses, speech therapists can help children with less severe cerebral palsy with chewing and swallowing.
This is a rare condition that requires surgical treatment. Hydrocephalus is a complication involving the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the skull, causing an abnormal increase in the size of the head. Untreated, this condition can be fatal. Hydrocephalus requires the implantation of valves to drain off excess fluid. Very few children with cerebral palsy have hydrocephalus.
Every surgery has its risks. Parents and doctors should ask themselves if the possible benefits outweigh the risks of surgery. It takes careful consideration to determine when surgery is appropriate because every child is different.
Doctors have differing opinions about the best time in a child’s life to suggest surgery. Some doctors think surgery offers the greatest benefit when children are young; others think it’s best to wait until children are older, recommending physical therapy and medication in the meantime. Generally, children with cerebral palsy are treated between the ages of 3 and 10, but the exact age depends on the individual.
Timing is essential because as a child with cerebral palsy grows, it becomes more apparent where they are having movement problems. Movement issues can be secondary to a larger issue that is hard to recognize until the child is older. Acting too early can result in a needless surgery with no tangible benefit.
For example, a deformity in the knees could be caused by an imbalance in the hips. Surgery to correct the straightening of the knees may have little effect if the issue resides in the hips.
Conversely, performing surgeries too late means posture and joint alignments are likely already established, further illustrating the importance of timing.
Parents should ask questions about their child’s surgery and why it is beneficial at the specific age of the child. Only an experienced specialist can evaluate the best course of action for your child, but you can learn more about surgical specialists in our free Cerebral Palsy Guide.
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.