Although there is no cure for cerebral palsy at this time, there are many things that can be done to help those with CP live more comfortably and productively. Treatment for CP is designed to give a child the most ordinary and healthy life possible.
CP covers a wide spectrum of disorders and can range from mild to severe. It is important for parents to understand all of the treatment options available so that they can maximize the support for their child’s individual needs.
Something to be aware of is that there can be emotional stresses and social factors that can be associated with different forms of treatment. A child’s preferences and opinions should be taken into account before deciding on a treatment plan.
Because cerebral palsy can affect many different parts and functions of a child's body, a well-rounded treatment plan can require a team of several types of specialists.
A pediatrician will act as the coordinator, identifying the complications and recommending specialists who will be able to help out.
Some of the specialists a child may need to see include:
- Developmental pediatricians
- Physical therapists
- occupational therapists
- Speech therapists
- Orthopedic surgeons
Although all of this seems like way too much to handle, with the right medical professionals, a child with cerebral palsy can drastically improve their physical abilities and live a happy and wholesome life. Once a schedule is put in place, managing the appointments with the different specialists becomes very doable.
Physical therapy is typically the first and most effective way to help children with cerebral palsy. It often begins at a young age, and its purpose is to improve gross motor abilities, such as standing up and walking.
Physical therapy can improve
First, a physical therapist will measure the child’s specific disabilities and make a plan to help develop their muscles.
In some cases, the best way to help a child’s muscles is through extracurricular activities such as swimming, dancing, or sports.
There are many medical practices which offer physical therapy, both in group settings and one-on-one. There are also offices which specialize in cerebral palsy children! Some only offer appointments in a doctor's office and others will perform the therapy in the comfort of the child’s own home.
Last but not least, as wonderful as it is to have assistance with a physical therapist during a child’s therapy sessions, it is equally important for a child to practice at home with his or her parents to boost the likelihood of success.
While physical therapy improves gross motor skills, such as standing and walking, occupational therapy helps children develop their fine motor skills, like writing, picking up small objects, and opening jars.
We take for granted our ability to use a spoon to pick up food and put it in our mouths, but these steps can be very difficult for children with cerebral palsy. Thankfully, occupational therapists can help these children develop those skills.
An occupational therapist will evaluate a child’s needs, assess how the child responds to different actions, and then formulate a treatment plan.
There are four general areas occupational therapy helps:
- Placing objects in specific positions
- Reaching out for objects
- Grasping objects
- Releasing objects.
The therapy process focuses on:
- Breaking down tasks into small steps to make them easier.
- And finding alternative methods for certain tasks that are too difficult for the child to do normally.
Occupational therapy can have far-reaching effects on a child with cerebral palsy. The goal is to provide children with the highest level of functional performance possible, which is crucial for his or her independence.
Many children with cerebral palsy have a difficult time speaking since cerebral palsy affects the muscles in the mouth which enable us to speak clearly.
Fortunately, speech therapy, also called speech pathology, can teach these children how to speak more effectively.
Therapy for speaking correctly
Speech impairments range from mild to severe, depending on the effect CP has on the particular child. Even in more severe cases of CP, in which a child can't speak at all, the therapist can still help by finding alternative ways to communicate, like lifting specific fingers or winking.
Therapy for eating correctly
Speech therapists are also able to help children with their eating since it uses similar muscles as speech. It’s actually very common for children with CP to be underweight because of their difficulty in chewing or swallowing food.
Therapy for breathing correctly
Another common therapy is breathing exercises. The muscles that assist in breathing may be weaker than normal, and teaching a child new techniques can help their oxygen intake.
Studies show that speech therapy is more successful when implemented at a young age. The earlier a child begins treatment, the sooner the brain can make vital connections that are much more difficult to do later in life. Ask your doctor when the best time is for your child to start.
Although therapy is often the safest and most effective treatment, some issues are best resolved using medications.
In fact, most children with CP are on a number of medications, treating their individual symptoms.
Typical uses of medication are to:
- Loosen muscles that stiffen or spasm.
- Stop involuntary movement
- And treat seizures due to epilepsy
Medications are also used for:
- Uncontrollable urinary muscles
- acid reflux
- behavioral complications.
Many parents get nervous when they’re told that their child should be on multiple medications for an extended period.
Are they really necessary?
Although there are sometimes alternatives to medication, parents shouldn't dismiss their doctors' recommendations. Health care professionals strive to be as cautious as possible not to prescribe unnecessarily. Understand that they have the child in mind and want only the best for him or her.
Parents should be sure to discuss with their child’s doctors the pros and cons of each medication, expressing their concerns and expectations for their child’s quality of life. Every child is different, and not every child needs medications in order to have the life they want.
Although most mobility problems can be alleviated using therapy, medications, and assistive technologies, there are some instances when surgery is the best option.
For the most part, orthopedic surgery is prescribed for children with spastic cerebral palsy. Muscles can become very tight and restricted in spastic CP, and surgery can improve mobility by releasing pressure enabling more fluid movement.
The 6 most common orthopedic surgeries correct:
- Abnormal muscle tone,
- Movement coordination and control,
- Reflex irregularity,
- Motor function
Other surgeries that are common for children with cerebral palsy are:
- Hearing Correction Surgery, when therapy and medications are not an option.
- Gastroenterology Surgery, to improve the digestive process.
When is surgery appropriate?
Timing is of the essence when surgery is considered since there is a limited window of time that encourages better success. The age range is typically between three and eight years old, but the exact age depends on each child individually.
It’s important to note that although surgery can be helpful, it can not fix the underlying cause of CP and therefore has limited success even when surgery goes perfectly. Parents need to have realistic expectations and discuss all pros and cons with their child’s doctor before undergoing surgery.
Make sure to ask whatever questions you have to your child’s doctor. As your child’s most influential advocate, it is important you are well-informed so you can make the best decisions for your child.
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Is There a Cure for Cerebral Palsy?
Modern medicine has known that cerebral palsy is a brain disorder since the 1800s. Unfortunately, there is still no cure. The only hope for a cure lies in understanding CP and its effects more clearly. In truth, because we’re still so far from demystifying the brain’s intricacies, most research pertains only to limiting the brain damage and alleviating symptoms - not to curing CP altogether.
However, as neuroscience develops its understanding of the brain, there is hope that eventually a cure may be available.
Currently, the best hope for a cure is through stem cell research. Stem cells are a class of cells that can become any type of cell in the body. In other words, they have no specific function of their own until they are “programmed” to specialize into what they are needed for. They’re like the body’s wild cards.
How could stem cells be helpful in cerebral palsy?
As we discussed, CP is caused by damage to the brain’s motor control center. This area of the brain consists of billions of different brain cells. Theories suggest that by infusing stem cells into the damaged area of the brain, they may be able to take the place of the damaged cells. Alternatively, scientists are hopeful that they may be able to recreate brain cells with the stem cells in a lab.
Even if stem cell therapy may not necessarily offer a cure, it may still be used to protect and repair the damaged cells before there is permanent damage. This procedure will, in turn, reduce symptoms and promote mobility.
There is still a lot of debate around the topic of stem cell therapy in many medical conditions including CP. We will just have to wait and see what happens.
For now, the only way to treat cerebral palsy is by managing mobility complications and its other symptoms as well as we can.
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