Alternative and Complementary Therapies
for cerebral palsy
Many children with CP use some form of alternative or complementary medicine and, although these therapies have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of CP, there are reports of some benefits.
Such therapies include hyperbaric oxygen therapy, special clothing that is worn during resistance exercise training, certain forms of electrical stimulation, and other specialized therapies used to help children with CP with mobility and other skills.
Hippotherapy is a form of physical, occupational, and speech therapy that relies on the aid of a horse. It’s based on the concept that when a child makes adjustments to the gait, rhythm, and repetition of a horse’s movements, their own neurological and physical functioning develops and improves as a result. That is because horses display specific patterns of cadence and rhythm as they trot.
In order to remain mounted, the rider must adapt to the patterns of movement in the horse, so their torso and hips naturally fall in sync. This repetition and adaptation creates new natural motor responses and improved movement even when the child is off the horse.
Hippotherapy also provides plenty of psychological benefits. Horses are known to offer psychological comfort, and the emotional bond that is created between a horse and a rider can be very rewarding, providing a child with a sense of motivation and improved self-esteem. Hippotherapy, through equine movement, has been proven to help with:
- Balance and coordination
- Understanding visual cues
- Sensory integration
- Abnormal muscle tone
- Social skills
A hippotherapy team consists of a therapist, horse trainer, and riding instructors walking on both sides of the horse and, unlike therapeutic horseback riding (where specific riding skills are taught), the movement of the horse itself is the treatment strategy. Hippotherapy is a treatment whose effectiveness has been confirmed in a large patient group with physical or mental disabilities when applied by an experienced therapist. Equine-assisted therapy is being used widely in many countries of the world.
How Effective Is Hippotherapy?
The benefits of hippotherapy vary depending on the needs and unique circumstances of each patient. However, one study showed that, of the children observed, more than half of them developed a greater forward reach and walked faster on irregular surfaces. Hippotherapy also improved hypertonia for many of these children, decreasing muscle stiffness and providing more ease of movement.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is a cerebral palsy treatment that sends pure oxygen into the bloodstream of a patient as they lie in a pressurized chamber. Because the air pressure in the chamber is three times higher than normal air pressure, the lungs are able to take in more oxygen. HBOT is believed to:
- Help the body fight off infection
- Help the body stimulate and release stem cells and growth factors
- Temporarily restore the correct level of tissue function and blood gas levels
When using Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, the patient enters a specialized room or a glass chamber designed for manipulating air pressure. The room is sealed and the air pressure is changed to ensure the air that the patient breathes is 100% oxygen. For reference, air typically contains approximately 20% oxygen. The body needs oxygen to heal and with a higher oxygen intake, damaged or disabled cells can be regenerated or may even become functional again.
How Effective Is HBOT?
Currently HBOT is a controversial treatment for those with cerebral palsy. Within the last decade, many studies have been conducted, but the results have varied. The majority of healthcare providers agree that HBOT is most beneficial for children who developed cerebral palsy due to a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen, rather than a genetic or developmental cause.
Electrical Muscle Stimulation Treatment
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) refers to a group of treatments that use low-energy electrical current to stimulate nerve endings, in order to reverse damage to the patient’s nervous system. When combined with physical therapy, research has shown that EMS can increase walking speed, reduce muscle spasticity and improve overall motor function of patients with cerebral palsy. EMS has been shown to help improve gait in children with spastic cerebral palsy, as well as correcting foot drop.
Types of Electrical Muscle Stimulation
- Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES)—Also known as Therapeutic Electrical Stimulation (TES) or Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES), this form of treatment is usually provided by a medical practitioner. Unlike Threshold Electrical Stimulation, NMES uses a higher voltage in shorter increments, with the aim of stimulating muscles to contract.
- Threshold Electrical Stimulation—This treatment does not induce muscle contractions. Instead, a lower voltage is used over a long period of time.
How Effective Is EMS?
Although research is promising regarding the use of EMS for cerebral palsy patients, most research suggests that it is best used alongside other standard treatments. Typically, EMS is combined with exercise or some other form of physical activity or physical therapy, depending on the child’s muscle condition.
The Adeli Suit
TheraSuit, AdeliSuit and PediaSuit were created from a prototype developed for the Russian space program in 1971. The suit was developed to maintain muscle tone in a weightless environment, like a spaceship. It uses a system of elastic bands and pulleys that create artificial forces which the body can work against in order to prevent muscular atrophy. The Adeli suit treatment (AST) has been proposed as an intensive exercise protocol to help manage CP and other neuromuscular disorders.
How Effective Is the Adeli Suit?
One study published in 2016 observed the effects of the Adeli suit on young patients with cerebral palsy. The results showed that after therapy, arm and leg coordination improved in both subjects, as well as walking and cadence. Although this particular study was limited in scope, it suggests that Adeli suit therapy could improve movement and mobility for other children with cerebral palsy.
Acupuncture has been used successfully to alleviate some CP symptoms, such as pain and motion disorders. The theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) deems that acupuncture corrects the imbalance of energy in the body by stimulating various points. Because acupuncture is thought to benefit neurological functioning and muscle hypertonicity, many families choose to incorporate it as part of their child’s cerebral palsy treatment plan. For these patients, acupuncture can reduce the discomfort of joint inflammation, muscle stiffness, and neck and back pain that are common in cerebral palsy. Acupuncture for children with CP can help improve:
- Pain caused by the central nervous system
- Balance and coordination
- Gross motor functionality
- Loss of voluntary movement (ataxia)
- Weakness of the hands, arms, and legs
- Loss of speech (aphasia) or speech delays
- Loss of hearing
How Effective Is Acupuncture?
Research has shown that acupuncture reduces nausea and vomiting after surgery and chemotherapy, and it can also relieve pain. Researchers don’t fully understand how acupuncture works, but speculate that it may aid the body’s natural pain-killing chemicals, or it may affect how you release chemicals that regulate blood pressure and flow. Acupuncture has increasingly been integrated into pediatric health care, and although numerous studies have been published, its safety and efficacy for patients with cerebral palsy is still uncertain.
Alternative approaches to healing and relief are becoming increasingly more common in the treatment of many illnesses and conditions, including CP. Many alternative therapies are considered low risk, which is what makes them appealing to families and caregivers of children with CP. However, some treatments, like dietary supplements or essential oils—including all-natural herbal products—may be dangerous by themselves or interact with other products or medications. Parents of children with CP should always discuss alternative therapies with their doctor in the search for providing the best care and quality of life for their children.
Trish Fletcher, MS, BSN, CRNP, NNP-BC, ALNC
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner | Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant
Tricia is a dedicated, focused, Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner with more than 25 years of experience. Her strong clinical and critical thinking skills, paired with expertise caring for neonates in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), ensures meticulous medical records review. READ FULL BIO