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Why Cerebral Palsy in the Legs Shouldn’t Get in the Way of Your Goals

walking with cerebral palsy in legs

Cerebral palsy in the legs is called spastic diplegia.

An easy way to remember this is to break it up. ‘Spastic’ refers to stiff movements, ‘di’ means two, and ‘plegia’ means paralysis (loss of muscle control).

Put it together, and you have stiff movements in two legs due to lack of muscle control.

This type of cerebral palsy will result in motor impairments primarily in the lower body, but can also affect the upper body at a much lesser extent.

Cerebral Palsy in the Legs

Spastic diplegia can vary quite a bit from person to person.

Someone with more severe cerebral palsy will probably need to use a wheelchair to get around while someone with mild CP may be able to walk independently with a slightly irregular gait pattern.  

Some common gait patterns demonstrated in people with spasticity in the legs include:

  • Toe walking
  • In-toeing
  • Out-toeing
  • Crouch gait (when the ankles, knees, and hips all stay bent)
  • Scissor gait (when the knees touch or cross over one another while the feet are spread apart)

The type of gait pattern someone has depends on which muscles have spasticity. For example, tight calf muscles with pull the heels up and force people to walk on their toes.

Spastic Diplegia and Independence

how to be independent with cerebral palsy in legs

©iStock.com/AndreyPopov

Even with severely affected legs, many people with spastic diplegia are extremely independent because they can use their arms.

They can maintain a job, play adaptive sports, drive with car adaptations, and perform many activities of daily living all on their own.

Occupational therapy can help people with spastic diplegia optimize their ability to perform everyday tasks and increase independence.

Developing a strong sense of independence will help CP patients feel more confident in their bodies and abilities.

Managing Spasticity in the Legs

Although the brain damage that caused cerebral palsy is irreversible, it’s symptoms can be significantly reduced.

Additionally, the brain is extremely adaptive. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself, meaning that functions affected by cerebral palsy can be transferred to healthier, undamaged parts of the brain and improved.

The best way to activate neuroplasticity is through massed practice. The more repetitions you perform, the stronger the rewired neural pathways become.

Many individuals with spastic diplegia learn how to effectively manage their symptoms and boost leg mobility through neuroplasticity.

Physical Therapy for Spastic Diplegia

The primary management intervention for spastic diplegia is physical therapy.

One of the main goals of physical therapy for cerebral palsy is to promote neuroplasticity through exercises designed to improve , relieve spasticity, strengthen underused muscles, and improve range of motion.

You learn how to perform the exercises in physical therapy, but it’s also very important to practice them at home on your own time to get the repetitions necessary to strengthen neural pathways in the brain.

Orthotics for Cerebral Palsy in the Legs

A big part of having cerebral palsy is focusing on what you can do and working towards improvements.

For example, if you walk with an abnormal gait pattern, wearing a brace can help hold the limb in place so that you can walk more naturally.

It may feel uncomfortable at first, but wearing orthotics will make sure that you don’t compromise form.

The more you practice using proper form, the more comfortable it will feel.

Medications for Spasticity Relief

Botox and baclofen are medications that can be used to reduce spasticity temporarily.

Botox works by blocking the chemical signals that cause muscle contractions. It is directly injected into tight muscles and can relieve spasticity for several months.

Baclofen is a muscle relaxant that can be injected, taken orally, or pumped through the spinal canal.

The best way to improve motor function is to take advantage of reduced spasticity and intensively work on physical therapy exercises.

This will help boost mobility and promote neuroplasticity.

Many people with spastic diplegia will have walked with spasticity their entire lives and are accustomed to it. Walking without spasticity will probably feel uncomfortable because it is a new experience.

Every time you perform a new movement, a new set of neural pathways fires together.

As you figure out how to adjust your center of gravity and continue to practice, the stronger the neural pathways will get, and the more normal it will feel.

Surgical Interventions for Spastic Diplegia

Surgery is typically only recommended when all other interventions fail to reduce spasticity.

Muscle lengthening surgeries (typically of the heel cords or hamstrings) will manually lengthen contracted muscles.

A Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy is a more permanent spasticity solution. By cutting the nerve roots, spasticity can no longer occur.

Seeing Past the Disability

That’s a wrap! To help boost your motivation, let’s end this article with an inspiring CP success story.

Meet Justin, the first athlete with cerebral palsy to be signed by Nike.

On Instagram, Justin wrote:

“Growing up with a disability, the thought of becoming a professional athlete is as I have said before like the thought of climbing Mt. Everest! It is definitely possible, but the odds are most definitely not in your favor! […] I was once a kid in leg braces who could barely put on[e] foot in front of the other! Now I have signed a contract with Nike Running!”

Many people with cerebral palsy feel like certain aspirations are out of their reach and won’t even bother trying. We believe that if you’re willing to put in the work, there’s always a way to overcome your obstacles.

Justin proves that having the resilience and determination to focus on your abilities, create a goal, and work towards it can pay off.

Hopefully, this article helped you realize that people with spasticity in their legs can still be independent and live very fulfilling lives.

Featured image: ©iStock.com/wernerimages

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