A child may need one or several different types of treatment depending on how severe the symptoms are and what parts of the body are affected. The treatment differs from person to person, depending on each one’s specific needs. Although the initial damage of cerebral palsy in the brain cannot be reversed, earlier and aggressive treatments may help to improve function and adjustments for the young nervous system and musculoskeletal system.
Families may also work with their health care providers and, during the school years, school staff to develop individual care and treatment programs.
- Physical therapy and rehabilitation. A child with cerebral palsy usually starts these therapies in the first few years of life or soon after being diagnosed. Physical therapy is one of the most important parts of treatment. It involves exercises and activities that can maintain or improve muscle strength, balance, and movement. A physical therapist helps the child learn skills such as sitting, walking, or using a wheelchair. Other types of therapy include:
- Occupational therapy. This type of therapy helps a child learn to do everyday activities such as dressing and going to school.
- Recreational therapy. Participating in art programs, cultural activities, and sports can help improve a child’s physical and intellectual skills.
- Speech and language therapy. A speech therapist can help a child learn to speak more clearly, help with swallowing problems, and teach new ways to communicate, such as by using sign language or a special communication device.
- Orthotic devices. Braces, splints, and casts can be placed on the affected limbs and can improve movement and balance. Other devices that can help with movement and posture include wheelchairs, rolling walkers, and powered scooters.
- Assistive devices and technologies. These include special computer-based communication machines, Velcro-fastened shoes, or crutches, which can help make daily life easier.
- Medication. Certain medications can relax stiff or overactive muscles and reduce abnormal movement. They may be taken by mouth, injected into affected muscles, or infused into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord through a pump implanted near the spinal cord. For children who have cerebral palsy and epilepsy (seizures), standard epileptic medications should be considered, but these medications may also have negative effects on the developing brain.
- Surgery. A child may need surgery if symptoms are severe. For instance, surgery can lengthen stiff, tightly contracted muscles. A surgeon can also place arms or legs in better positions or correct or improve an abnormally curved spine. Sometimes, if other treatments have not worked, a surgeon can cut certain nerves to treat abnormal, spastic movements. Before conducting surgery, it is important for a health care provider to assess the procedure’s benefits by carefully analyzing biomechanics of the joints and muscles.
Not all therapies are appropriate for everyone with cerebral palsy. It is important for parents, patients, and health care providers to work together to come up with the best treatment plan for the patient.
Although the NICHD research portfolio includes work on cerebral palsy and rehabilitative therapies, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke leads research on cerebral palsy at the NIH and offers comprehensive information on cerebral palsy and its treatment through its website.