Cerebral Palsy: Therapies for Children

A child with cerebral palsy (CP) may benefit from many types of therapy to ease symptoms and aid function. Interventions might include physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech and language therapy. The purpose of all therapies is to help your child develop a positive sense of self by gaining the greatest physical, psychological, social, and cognitive independence.

Therapy is effective only with active participation of the family. For example, a physical therapist (PT) may work closely with an occupational therapist (OT), speech and language therapist (SLP) and the family to evaluate the child’s needs related to stable sitting. Using play and specific exercises, therapists adapt the child’s sitting position to improve feeding and communication skills.

PTs, OTs, and SLPs often use an integrated treatment approach to help reduce abnormal movement patterns and muscle tone and to improve sensory and motor coordination. Therapists work to best meet your child’s individual needs.

Here is an overview of some of the most commonly used therapies for cerebral palsy.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy (therapy to treat developmental delays, disease and injury using methods such as exercise) often helps children with CP with:

Physical therapy can help with functional activities and gross motor skills. Gross motor skills include many mobility-related skills such as:

  • Reaching
  • Rolling
  • Sitting
  • Crawling
  • Standing
  • Walking
  • Jumping
  • Riding a bike

PTs assess each child individually. Following the evaluation, therapists develop functional goals and treatment plans in collaboration with family members. Evaluations occur on an ongoing basis. A PT may use exercises, play-focused activities, and a range of other treatment approaches. These may be used in combination with assistive devices, such as braces or wheelchairs, to enhance your child’s abilities. Treatments are adapted often to address your child’s changing needs.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (therapies to help individuals develop mental or physical skills that aid in daily living activities, with careful attention to enhancing fine motor skills (hand and finger skills, eye-hand coordination and sensory integration)) is also often recommended for children with CP. OTs can address functional skills and help your child manage activities of daily living. Feeding, toileting, and dressing are a few examples. Many of these activities require fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination needed for play, learning, and self-help skills.

OTs assess and develop treatment plans to address postural control, strength, flexibility, endurance, and coordination. They help do this through movement activities, positioning to maximize function, and by making recommendations for specialized equipment and adaptations to the home and school environments. OTs are also skilled in helping children with sensory processing problems, as well as behavioral issues.

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and language therapy helps children with CP who have disorders in speech (talking) or language . SLPs also address feeding and swallowing troubles.

SLPs may use and teach a variety of treatment strategies to develop the full potential for communication. This may include use of communication boards, sign language, or computerized programs. SLPs develop treatment plans and goals specific for each child. This may involve improving strength and endurance of the oral structures. SLPs often coordinate care with OTs. This is done to help your child with the comprehension and understanding of language needed for social interaction and cognitive skills.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Alternative and complementary therapies are a variety of therapeutic and preventive health practices that don’t follow generally accepted medical practices. They don’t always have a scientific explanation for their effectiveness. Before pursuing any of these types of therapy for CP, be sure to discuss them with your medical team. Here are a few examples:

  • Craniosacral therapy (CST)
  • Feldenkrais Method
  • Conductive Education
  • Hippotherapy
  • Dietary supplements Consult a registered dietitian to see if nutritional supplements are needed. Children with CP may have trouble chewing and swallowing food, which can result in low calorie intake. Older children with CP may become overweight because of limited activity.
  • Therapeutic electrical stimulation (TES) Studies do not show significant improvement. TES does not cause the muscles to contract. Often given at night, TES must be coordinated with physical or occupational therapy. Another form of electrical stimulation is neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NES). This causes actual muscle contraction. Some research indicates that it increases muscle strength.

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