Physical therapy is key to any cerebral palsy treatment plan. Talk with a doctor to get a referral to one near you.

A physical therapist helps someone with cerebral palsy through their stretching exercises.Share on Pinterest
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Cerebral palsy (CP) is an umbrella term for a group of motor disabilities that affect your muscle tone, movement, coordination, and more. CP is caused by abnormalities during brain development or injury or damage to your brain in childbirth or early life.

While there’s no cure for CP, treatment can greatly help improve daily functioning and reduce your risk of future health complications. Physical therapy is a highly effective treatment approach for improving movement and functioning and reducing pain in people with CP.

Ahead, we’ll explore the role of physical therapy for CP, including how to find a good physical therapist and which physical therapy exercises to consider trying at home.

Physical therapy, or physiotherapy, is an approach that uses physical exercises and other treatments to improve movement and reduce pain. People use physical therapy to manage or treat symptoms of both acute injuries and chronic health conditions.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), physical therapy is one of the most important treatment options for children living with CP. In fact, most children who receive a diagnosis of CP begin physical therapy as one of their first treatments.

As part of a care team, physical therapists work closely with people who have CP to decrease their risk of health complications and improve their:

  • coordination and balance
  • posture, gait, and mobility
  • joint and muscle flexibility
  • strength and endurance
  • chronic pain management

Some of the different ways that physical therapists do this is through approaches like stretching and massage, weight-strengthening exercises, and balance training, to name a few.

When it comes to physical therapy, different approaches can target different symptoms — like coordination, balance, or strength. And while everyone’s symptoms and needs are different, research suggests that some approaches are especially effective for improving CP symptoms.

One review published in 2019 explored the effectiveness of different evidence-based physical therapy approaches for treating CP.

According to the review, functional-based training — a type of physical therapy that trains your body for everyday activities — improved CP symptoms in all subtypes. Constraint-induced movement therapy, strength training, and gait training were also effective for different CP subtypes.

Outside of physical therapy, several other therapy approaches are effective for improving your symptoms of CP. Some of those approaches include:

  • Recreational therapy: Recreational therapy is an approach that uses recreational activities, like music, art, and cooking, to improve a person’s skills and abilities. Recreational therapy is also beneficial for improving mental health symptoms in people with chronic conditions.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy is another approach that specifically focuses on improving daily tasks through therapy and accommodations. Occupational therapy is similar to physical therapy, but the focus is more on improving someone’s ability to engage in daily life.
  • Speech and language therapy: Some people with CP experience muscle changes that can make it hard to speak, chew, swallow, and even breathe. Speech and language therapy can help improve these symptoms by targeting your head, neck, mouth, and throat, for example.

How to find a physical therapist

If you or a loved one has received a diagnosis of CP, the first step toward treatment is building your care team.

One of the best ways to find physical therapists in your area — and under your insurance — is to ask a primary doctor directly. They can prepare either a referral for you or a list of options that you can reach out to.

Otherwise, you can search for physical therapists near you through the American Physical Therapy Association’s Find a Board-Certified Specialist and Choose PT tools.

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As part of a regular physical therapy program, many people with CP also practice exercises at home. Here are a few options to consider for at-home exercises that can be beneficial for people with CP:

  • For muscle: Muscle building helps your improve strength and endurance. Some exercise options include free weights, resistance bands, bodyweight workouts, and at-home pool workouts.
  • For cardio: Cardio helps improve your heart health and stamina. Some exercise options include the recumbent or stationary bike, at-home pool workouts, and online fitness or dance classes.
  • For flexibility: Flexibility exercises help improve your bone and joint health. Some exercise options include stretching, online yoga classes, and resistance bands.

Research has shown that at-home approaches, when done in collaboration with healthcare professionals, can help further improve your CP symptoms. Make sure to discuss your at-home workout exercise routines with a physical therapist for the best effect and to reduce your chance of injury.

Physical therapy is among the most important treatment approaches for helping improve a person’s symptoms of CP, especially in young children. Physical therapy can also be paired with other forms of therapy, like occupation, recreational, or speech and language therapy.

If you or a loved one living with CP is interested in learning more about the different therapy options available to you, consider reaching out to a doctor.