Teenagers with cerebral palsy have experienced their motor impairments pretty much their entire lives, so it’s easy to believe that if they haven’t gotten better by now, they’ve probably reached their limit.
You’re about to learn why that’s not true at all, and how the teen years are actually a prime time for functional improvements.
The Developing Brain in a Teenager with Cerebral Palsy
The teen years are a crucial period for brain development.
Dr. Karen Pape explains in her book, The Boy Who Could Run But Not Walk, that during puberty, “teenagers gain up to 40% more brainpower” and that “most of the change is in maturation of functions and improvement of the interconnections between different brain areas.”
The prefrontal cortex is still developing well into adulthood. It’s the part of the brain responsible for understanding actions and consequences, impulse control, and decision-making.
As this part of the brain matures, teens will better understand the process and importance of setting and achieving goals.
Instead of mindlessly going to physical therapy or wearing orthotics because their parents make them, teens will begin to understand why they need to commit to management for cerebral palsy. They’ll figure out that this is something that they want and motivate themselves.
Their brains and bodies are still developing and with the right mindset, teens with cerebral palsy should be able to improve their movements.
Why Do Functions Worsen or Not Improve in the Teen Years?
With all this potential for improvement, why do motor functions appear to worsen or plateau in teenagers?
For a long time, it was assumed that the brain cannot adapt and that any effects of brain damage were permanent. We now know that the brain has neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself and adapt. The best way to promote it is through massed practice. The more you repeat an affected function, the more rewiring and strengthening of neural pathways occurs.
Thousands of repetitions are required to rewire the brain, and many individuals with cerebral palsy don’t participate in the necessary therapy to achieve this.
Recovery Stories of Teenagers with Cerebral Palsy
To help prove that functional improvement is possible in teens with cerebral palsy, we’re going to share 2 experiences.
This first story is from Dr. Karen Pape’s The Boy Who Could Run But Not Walk.
Mason was a teen with CP that refused to wear orthotics and continue additional physical therapy because he was convinced that he couldn’t get any better and accepted his circumstances.
He eventually ended up joining an intensive, 1-week physical therapy program.
In that single week, he experienced improved posture, balance, and was walking with his legs rather than leaning his weight on his assistive devices.
From skeptic to firm believer, Mason now understands that if he stays motivated and puts in the work, neuroplasticity is possible, and great improvements can happen.
Alex is also a teen with cerebral palsy. She’s been going to physical therapy since she was 1 year old, but it wasn’t until she joined an intensive physical therapy program that she was able to walk with crutches.
The difference between traditional physical therapy and intensive physical therapy is the amount of time dedicated each week toward improving motor functions.
Rather than going in for an hour a few times a week, intensive physical therapy requires many hours of practice to be concentrated over a shorter period.
You perform way more repetitions than you would in traditional physical therapy, which stimulates the brain to adapt.
“Alex never would have accomplished this through traditional PT alone. Traditional therapy sessions do not engage individuals in long enough periods of time, but her local PT integrated with other forms of therapy will now help maintain this progress.”
By participating in intensive physical therapy, Alex has become more confident, motivated, and strong.
Giving Your Teen Space to Grow
As a parent, you want to help your child as much as possible. However, being too helpful can backfire.
Consider trying to adopt a more hands-free approach to parenting so that your teen has more freedom to develop their independence and figure things out of their own.
Teens with cerebral palsy should practice asking others for help, performing activities of daily living, and explaining their disability so that others can understand their needs.
Cerebral palsy is a life-long condition and it’s important for teens to understand what to do when their caregivers aren’t around.
Understanding Cerebral Palsy in Teenagers
When it comes down to it, neuroplasticity is possible at any age. The brain is always making new connections.
However, there are times in life (like adolescence) when the brain experiences heightened levels of neuroplasticity and the potential to improve is greater.
While the brain damage that caused cerebral palsy will not get worse over time, complications of CP like pain and spasticity can.
Therefore, committing to management interventions like physical therapy, orthotics, and medications is essential.
There’s hope for functional improvement in teenagers with cerebral palsy, but you need to be willing to put in the work and perform the repetitions necessary to promote neuroplasticity.
Featured images: ©iStock/yacobchuk/KatarzynaBialasiewicz/mamaPoli