Can people with cerebral palsy walk? Cerebral palsy is a motor disability, so it makes sense why some people with CP may not be able to walk.
However, it’s also a spectrum that describes a bunch of different types of motor disabilities.
No two cases of cerebral palsy are going to be exactly alike, and the ability to walk depends on the location and severity of damage to the brain.
In this article, we’ll go over the link between cerebral palsy and walking ability, as well as ways to improve walking.
Can People with Cerebral Palsy Walk?
Yes, most people with cerebral palsy can walk!
In fact, nearly half of all cerebral palsy patients can walk on their own without mobility aids like walkers or crutches.
Cerebral palsy doesn’t necessarily have to affect the legs.
It can affect an arm or even just one side of the body so that one leg is normal and the other has a motor impairment.
Individuals with affected legs will likely demonstrate an abnormal walking pattern caused by symptoms of cerebral palsy like irregular muscle tone and poor balance.
Classifying Walking Ability in Individuals with Cerebral Palsy
The severity of cerebral palsy is measured through the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS).
It consists of 5 levels with GMFCS level 1 being the mildest and level 5 the most severe.
Generally, children with GMFCS levels 1 and 2 should be able to walk independently.
In contrast, children with GMFCS levels 3 and 4 will have more limited walking ability and will need to use mobility aids to walk short distances.
Individuals with GMFCS level 5 have very severe motor impairments and will need to rely on wheelchairs for mobility.
How to Improve Walking in Cerebral Palsy Patients
Keep in mind that GMFCS levels can change!
While the brain damage that caused cerebral palsy cannot be cured, the brain has neuroplasticity, which is its ability to rewire itself based on demand.
This means that functions affected by brain damage can be reassigned to healthy areas of the brain.
The most effective way to promote neuroplasticity is through massed practice.
Increased repetition indicates that there is a demand for that specific movement, which tells the brain that it needs to rewire itself.
Let’s go over 5 effective ways to boost walking ability in individuals with cerebral palsy.
1) Reduce Spasticity
Up to 80% of all cerebral palsy patients have spastic cerebral palsy, which is characterized by involuntary muscle contractions called spasticity.
Generally, when someone with cerebral palsy walks with an abnormal gait, it’s because spasticity pulls their knees, hips, or ankles in a certain direction.
Spasticity can progress over time and further compromise walking ability if left unmanaged.
Temporary spasticity treatments like Botox or muscle relaxants will help relieve muscle tone so that your child can focus on their physical therapy.
2) Go to Physical Therapy
At physical therapy, your child will learn exercises to help improve their mobility long-term.
Stretching will help lengthen tight muscles and expand range of motion.
Gait training is a type of physical therapy that focuses on optimizing walking function.
It can involve all sorts of different exercises and equipment. For example, a weight-bearing treadmill can help children with cerebral palsy practice walking with correct form without having to place so much pressure on the joints.
The more repetitions are performed, the stronger the neural pathways for the function become, resulting in more natural movements.
3) Use Orthotics
Orthotics like braces, casts, and splints can be used to prevent and treat irregular muscle tone in cerebral palsy patients.
They help gently strengthen tight muscles and restrict unwanted movements to promote mobility.
Maintaining good form is essential for improving gait patterns and balance.
4) Seek Early Intervention
Habits are formed through strong neural connections, which are established through repetition.
The earlier you seek management interventions, the less time abnormal movement patterns have had to develop.
Additionally, the younger you are, the more adaptive the brain is. This makes it easier to learn correct movement patterns and replace abnormal ones.
5) Challenge Yourself
Rewiring the brain to improve your child’s gait isn’t going to happen overnight.
It takes thousands of repetitions to get new habits to form, and they need to be developed one step at a time.
Make sure that your child is continuously being challenged so that they don’t lose interest in performing those repetitions.
If your child uses a walker to walk, have them practice walking without it for a few minutes every day, and increase the time as they improve.
When children become too dependent on their walkers, they don’t develop the skills necessary to stay balanced without them.
Walking with Cerebral Palsy
That’s a wrap! Cerebral palsy is a childhood motor disability that may or may not affect one’s ability to walk.
Severity and location of brain damage influence how seriously motor impairments are experienced and what parts of the body are affected.
Luckily, functions affected by cerebral palsy can be rewired and improved through repetitive stimulation.
Thanks to the extremely adaptive properties of the brain, there’s always hope for improvement.
Featured image: ©iStock.com/JNemchinova