Physical Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Quick Answer

Physical therapy is a medical treatment that uses exercises and other techniques to treat cerebral palsy symptoms. Physical therapy can help improve movement, strength, flexibility, sensory abilities and motor control in patients of all ages.

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Physical Therapy for Cerebral Palsy Explained

Physical therapy for cerebral palsy helps children with their manage their body movements and pain through non-invasive physical treatments. Massage, strength training, fitness routines and specialized exercises are all common approaches with physical therapy.

The objective of physical therapy is to improve a person’s well-being. The treatment is considered successful when a child with cerebral palsy completes a task or participates in an activity that wasn’t they could not before.

Bodies and personal needs change over time. It’s common for people with cerebral palsy to work with physical therapists off and on throughout their lives.

It’s typical for children with cerebral palsy to undergo regular physical therapy for many years, as treatment helps throughout many stages of development. Because physical therapy can help with every stage of development, early intervention improves quality of life sooner. It also eliminates challenges that worsen over time, such as not fully using impaired limbs.

What Is Physical Therapy for Cerebral Palsy?

Physical therapy can be used to reduce or even eliminate many of the symptoms of cerebral palsy.

Physical therapy for cerebral palsy can improve a person’s self-reliance and quality of life by focusing on:

  • Motor control
  • Strength building
  • Better balance and coordination
  • More flexibility

Pediatric physical therapists focus specifically on children and are well-versed in the physical needs of young, growing bodies. These therapists also often feel strongly inclined to help special needs children and their families.

All physical therapists hold a master’s degree in physical therapy, but some also choose to specialize in cerebral palsy treatments. Physical therapists can become experts in cerebral palsy therapy through internships, additional education and hands-on experience.

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

Physical therapy is most helpful when training parts of the body that are weak due to unintentional neglect. Many children with cerebral palsy will focus their movements on the stronger part of the body, making the other areas weaker than they would otherwise be if used consistently.

Common symptoms of cerebral palsy that can be improved with physical therapy include:

  • Weakened muscles
  • Muscle asymmetry
  • Lack of balance
  • Favoring one limb over the other
  • Poor motor control
  • Sensory challenges
  • Limited flexibility

For children living with cerebral palsy, each of these symptoms can be reduced with strategic treatment.

Physical therapy can also help patients improve their emotional and mental well-being. More independence and mobility builds confidence and self-esteem. All family members happier when children see improvements from physical therapy.

The exact goals of physical therapy will change over time. From birth to age four, physical therapy focuses on movement, positions, self-soothing, play and feeding. Therapists prescribe specific activities to help young children gain strength and improve function.

Physical therapy for patients ages 5 to 12 focuses on growing bodies and minds. Walking, posture and mobility are key focus areas during this time, as well as personal hygiene, play and socialization. At this age, adaptive equipment may be introduced to help patients thrive. Lifestyle habits formed during this time tend to stick for life, so fitness routines and overall health are also a priority.

Adults with cerebral palsy do not tend to require as much physical therapy but may work with a therapist on a semi-regular basis to maintain healthy fitness routines and overcome any new challenges in work or at home. Pain management, energy conservation and environmental improvements may also become focus areas.

Physical Therapy Exercises and Techniques

Physical therapists use many exercises and techniques to treat symptoms of cerebral palsy. Recent research has proven that it greatly benefits children with cerebral palsy and calls for an increase in its use.

Bimanual Performance Training

Physical therapy is often used to improve bimanual performance—using both hands and upper limbs equally. Patients with hemiplegia (paralysis in one side of the body) respond particularly well to this type of therapy.

One common form of bimanual performance training is constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT), where the stronger part of the body is completely restrained, forcing a person to use the less favored part of their body. Over time, this helps rewire the brain to stop favoring the stronger side and recognize both limbs as reliable options.

Historically, neurodevelopmental treatment (NDT) was also used to improve hemiplegia. However, this treatment isn’t as effective as other forms of therapy and is becoming less popular.

The earlier bimanual performance is performed, the better the results. People with hemiplegia tend to ignore their impaired limb and some never learn how to use it. This behavior becomes reinforced over time, making it more difficult to reverse its impacts as a person ages.

Strength Training

Strength training can improve the muscle strength in underused limbs, which can build strength when performed regularly. Strength training may include traditional weight lifting and resistance training, or it may be modified to suit a person’s limitations.

While short-term benefits of strength training are seen relatively quickly, it needs to be maintained throughout a person’s life to retain long-term benefits. Therefore, most physical therapists will develop appropriate strength training routines that should be maintained.

In the past, there was concern that resistance training would increase spasticity. However, decades of research has proven otherwise and resistance training is now considered a safe treatment option.

Equine Therapy

Children with spastic cerebral palsy are sometimes treated with equine therapy, where horseback riding is used to improve muscle symmetry. Horseback sessions tend to be short (under 10 minutes). It is believed the movement of the horse helps balance and stabilize muscle activity.

In addition to the physical benefits, many children love horses and enjoy getting to ride them.

Reactive Balance Training

Reactive balance training may be used to help children and adults with balance control. These exercises often involve standing on platforms or uneven surfaces. It has proven to help children with spastic hemiplegia and diplegia (paralysis affecting limbs on both sides of the body).

Physical Therapy at Home

Physical therapists typically note exercises and routines that should be carried out at home. Parents can support their children’s development by following the prescribed activities and making time for them within their daily routines.

Working with a physical therapist through at-home sessions can also improve short- and long-term results, and has a notable impact on their quality of life.

Financial Compensation for Physical Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy can be the result of preventable injuries at birth. If that’s the case, financial compensation may be available to help pay for physical therapy and special needs case.

Working with an attorney experienced in cerebral palsy cases can help you get the legal compensation you need. Contact Birth Injury Justice Center today at 800-914-1562 to get a free medical case review.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
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  7. “Improvements in muscle symmetry in children with cerebral palsy after equine-assisted therapy (hippotherapy),” Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine. Retrieved from Accessed on December 29, 2018.
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