Children and adults with cerebral palsy may require lifelong care with a medical care team. Besides a pediatrician or physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist (physiatrist) and possibly a pediatric neurologist to oversee your child's medical care, the team might include a variety of therapists and mental health specialists. These experts give special attention to needs and issues that are more common in people with cerebral palsy and can work together with your primary care provider. Together you can develop a treatment plan.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy. However, there are many treatments options that may help improve your child's daily functioning. Selecting care will depend on his or her specific symptoms and needs, and needs may change over time. Early intervention can improve outcomes.
Treatment options can include medications, therapies, surgical procedures and other treatments as needed.
Medications that can lessen muscle tightness might be used to improve functional abilities, treat pain and manage complications related to spasticity or other cerebral palsy symptoms.
Muscle or nerve injections. To treat tightening of a specific muscle, your doctor might recommend injections of onabotulinumtoxinA (Botox), or another agent. The injections will need to be repeated about every three months.
Side effects can include pain at the injection site and mild flu-like symptoms. Other more-serious side effects include difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Oral muscle relaxants. Drugs such as baclofen, tizanidine (Zanaflex), diazepam (Valium) or dantrolene (Dantrium) are often used to relax muscles.
In some cases, baclofen is pumped into the spinal cord with a tube (intrathecal baclofen). The pump is surgically implanted under the skin of the abdomen.
- Medications to reduce drooling. One option is Botox injections into the salivary glands.
Talk to your doctor about benefits and risks and possible side effects of recommended medication options.
A variety of therapies play an important role in treating cerebral palsy:
Physical therapy. Muscle training and exercises can help your child's strength, flexibility, balance, motor development and mobility. You'll also learn how to safely care for your child's everyday needs at home, such as bathing and feeding your child. Your therapist can provide guidance on how you can continue muscle training and exercise at home between therapy visits.
For the first 1 to 2 years after birth, both physical and occupational therapists work on issues such as head and trunk control, rolling, and grasping. Later, both types of therapists are involved in wheelchair assessments.
Braces, splints or other supportive devices might be recommended for your child to help with function, such as improved walking, and stretching stiff muscles.
- Occupational therapy. Occupational therapists work to help your child gain independence in daily activities and routines at home and school and in the community. Adaptive equipment recommended for your child can include walkers, wide-based canes, standing and seating systems, or electric wheelchairs.
- Speech and language therapy. Speech-language pathologists can help improve your child's ability to speak clearly or to communicate using sign language. They can also teach the use of communication devices, such as a computer and voice synthesizer, if communication is difficult. Speech therapists can also address difficulties with eating and swallowing.
- Recreational therapy. Some children benefit from regular or adaptive recreational or competitive sports, such as therapeutic horseback riding or skiing. This type of therapy can help improve your child's motor skills, speech and emotional well-being. Both adults and children benefit from regular physical activity and exercise for general health and fitness.
Surgery may be needed to lessen muscle tightness or correct bone abnormalities caused by spasticity. These treatments include:
- Orthopedic surgery. Children with severe contractures or deformities might need surgery on bones or joints to place their arms, spine, hips or legs in their correct positions. Surgical procedures can also lengthen muscles and lengthen or reposition tendons that are shortened by contractures. These corrections can lessen pain and improve mobility. The procedures can also make it easier to use a walker, braces or crutches.
- Cutting nerve fibers (selective dorsal rhizotomy). In some severe cases, when other treatments haven't helped, surgeons might cut the nerves serving specific spastic muscles in a procedure called selective dorsal rhizotomy. This relaxes the muscle in the legs and reduces pain, but can cause numbness.
As needed, medications and other treatments may be recommended for seizures, pain, osteoporosis, mental health conditions, and problems with sleep, oral health, feeding and nutrition, bladder incontinence, vision, or hearing.
Adults with cerebral palsy
As your child with cerebral palsy becomes an adult, his or her health care needs can change. In addition to general health screenings recommended for all adults, ongoing health care includes evaluation and treatment for conditions that are more common in adults with cerebral palsy. These can include:
- Vision and hearing problems
- Maintenance of muscle tone
- Seizure management
- Problems with pain and fatigue
- Dental issues
- Orthopedic problems, such as contractures, arthritis and osteoporosis
- Heart and lung disease
- Mental health issues, such as depression