Physical therapy is often the first step in managing 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 for improvement.
What is physical therapy?
Physical therapy (PT) is a branch of rehabilitative health that is considered one of the most important aspects of treating children with Cerebral Palsy. Those with Cerebral Palsy experience mobility, function, posture and balance challenges of varying degrees. Physical therapy – which focuses on basic mobility, such as standing, walking, climbing stairs, reaching or operating a wheelchair – is a key element in the multidisciplinary approach to increasing a child’s mobility.
Physical therapy is the rehabilitation of physical impairments by training and strengthening a patient’s large muscle – those in the arms, legs, and abdomen. The goal of physical therapy is to maximise functional control of the body or increase gross motor function.
The goal of physical therapy is to help children:
- Develop coordination
- Build strength
- Improve balance
- Maintain flexibility
- Optimise physical functioning levels
- Maximise independence
Some of the Benefits by Cerebral Palsy type include:
- Spastic – Physical therapy can reduce the muscle tension and jerky jerking movements associated with spastic cerebral palsy. Exercises such as stretching can help limit its effects.
- Athetoid – People with athetoid cerebral palsy use physical therapy to increase muscle tone and gain more control over their movements.
- Ataxic – There are exercises that can improve balance problems faced by those with ataxic cerebral palsy.
Who Benefits from Physical Therapy?
A child, and his or her parents or caregivers, benefit tremendously from physical therapy because it helps the child overcome physical limitations by increasing mobility, and identifies alternate methods of completing tasks.
Benefits for Children with Cerebral Palsy
Physical therapy is of benefit to the child because it makes possible something unaffected individuals take for granted: the ability to move from place to place and interact with other children or adults from playing or performing tasks. Therapy also increases overall health by strengthening the body in a way that makes functioning possible.
This is achieved not only by developing strength and flexibility in the body but also using adaptive techniques – or equipment that can be operated by the child – that will allow the child an alternate path to perform tasks that able-bodied children at the same age can perform. Physical therapy empowers the child physically and emotionally and sets the stage for entering adulthood as an independent individual.
Benefits for Parents and Caregivers
Parents and caregivers are often overwhelmed and under an extreme level of stress. The more physical challenges a child can overcome or adapt to, the less hands-on assistance is required of the parents.
What are the benefits of physical therapy?
The benefit of physical therapy, for any child that is experiencing physical limitations, is regaining – or developing – physical mobility.
By developing a comprehensive plan of treatment, a physical therapist can address limitations in a child’s mobility – and specifically address them. This is achieved through implementing exercises that increase physical function and using adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, canes and orthotics to improve performance.
As a child’s physical abilities improve, the therapist can modify the equipment, or the overall course of therapy, to further advance a child’s treatment.
The largest benefit of therapy to a child with Cerebral Palsy is in the treatment of problematic conditions when they occur, including:
- Muscle atrophy or tightening
- Loss in joint range of motion
- Muscle spasticity
- Pain in muscles and joints
- Joint inflammation
- Contractures (muscle rigidity)