Michigan Cerebral Palsy Questions and Answers: Can Cerebral Palsy be Treated?

Q: Can cerebral palsy be treated?

A.  There are no treatments that can eliminate cerebral palsy once it is fully manifested in a child.  However, for infants who suffered a birth complication that can cause cerebral palsy, such as premature birth, there are treatments that can be given before or after birth to decrease the chances of developing cerebral palsy, or to decrease the severity of it.  In addition, there are many research-supported complementary and alternative therapies that can benefit children with cerebral palsy in a number of ways, including improving their muscle and gross motor function.

Magnesium sulfate

There is promising new research that indicates that magnesium sulfate has a neuroprotective effect and can help protect the brain from cerebral palsy when the baby is exposed to the drug in the mother’s womb.  Research shows that magnesium sulfate exposure in the womb decreases the likelihood and severity of cerebral palsy and severe motor dysfunction in the baby.  When physicians suspect that a mother is going to give birth to a premature baby, they should start to administer magnesium sulfate as soon as possible – within 24 hours.

Magnesium sulfate appears to protect the baby’s brain in the following ways:

  • It has antioxidant effects
  • It reduces the damaging molecules that are released when inflammation is present
  • It reduces a process called neuronal excitability (excitotoxicity), which is damaging to the brain and occurs when the brain experiences trauma, reduced blood flow and oxygen deprivation
  • It stabilizes membranes in the brain
  • It prevents large blood pressure fluctuations
  • It increases brain blood flow

Hypothermia treatments, also known as brain or body cooling therapy

When hypothermia treatment is given within the first hours and days of life, babies have a decreased chance of developing cerebral palsy, or the severity of the disorder may be reduced.  Specifically, the treatment should be started as soon as possible after the birth injury / birth complication occurs – within 6 hours for best results.  The cooling of the baby’s core temperature (and brai­­­­­­n) helps in a number of ways.  One way it helps is by slowing the metabolic rate and giving cells a longer time to recover.  This avoids further damage that can occur if normal oxygenation or blood flow is restored too quickly to injured brain cells.

Complementary and alternative therapies for cerebral palsy

Nutrition.  In this approach, a diet is tailored for the cerebral palsy patient.  The diet emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and discourages processed and sugary foods and soft drinks.  A healthy diet can go a long way towards mitigating or reducing symptoms of cerebral palsy.  The advice of an allergist may also help decrease symptoms.

Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hippotherapy).  Recently, hippotherapy has become increasingly popular as a treatment for children with cerebral palsy.  Theoretically, riding a horse can improve posture, balance and overall function by mobilizing the pelvis, lumbar spine, and hip joints.  Horseback riding can also decrease muscle tone, improve head and trunk postural control, and it can help develop equilibrium reactions in the torso.

Many studies have shown benefits from horseback riding in children with cerebral palsy.  Some studies found improvements in specific aspects of the GMFM (gross motor function measure), such as walking, running and jumping, as well as the total GMFM score.  One study found significant improvement in symmetry of muscle activity in muscle groups that had the most asymmetry prior to hippotherapy.

Acupuncture.  In acupuncture, fine needles are inserted into precisely defined, specific points on the body to correct disruptions in harmony, or to restore the normal flow of energy.  In theory, it restores internal balance and health.  Acupuncture has been used to treat children with cerebral palsy for over 20 years, and it has achieved some astonishing success.  According to an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, traditional Chinese medicine is a successful form of treatment for cerebral palsy.  In a test on 33 randomly chosen children with cerebral palsy, the clinical outcome using the GMFM showed a significant improvement in the motor function of those who had undergone the treatment.  There are several controlled and uncontrolled studies that show improvements in people with cerebral palsy who utilize acupuncture for treatment.

Yoga.  There are many yoga centers around the world designed especially for handicapped children.  Through their exercise and meditation regimens, they claim success in alleviating some of the symptoms of cerebral palsy.  The benefits of yoga include the following:

  • Enhancing the natural development of the child through a series of gentle and therapeutic exercises
  • Increasing body awareness, flexibility and strength
  • Reduction of hyperactivity and improvement of concentration by utilization of unique breathing exercises and relaxation techniques.

Body Work.  In addition to conventional occupational and physical therapy, there are other approaches that can make a big difference. These include Rolfing (realignment of neck and head), the Alexander Method (training the body to work more efficiently), and reflexology (a form of massage).

According to Ruth Werner, author of A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology, “As long as sensation is intact and the patient is able to communicate with the therapist in some way, massage is appropriate and potentially very useful for persons with cerebral palsy, as they work to maintain muscular elasticity and improve motor skills.”

Dr. Kalyani Premkumar is a vocal advocate for the use of massage in caring for cerebral palsy patients. She points out that the goal of health team therapists is to support the patient, given that there is no cure for cerebral palsy. Their job is to find ways to reduce stress and spasticity, prevent contractures, improve posture, and improve circulation to the skin and muscles that are not being used. She writes, “Since any form of stress increases the symptom, a relaxing massage helps reduce the spasms and involuntary movements. Passive movements and range-of-motion exercises of joints prevent contractures of muscles.”

Electrical Stimulation.  Several types of electrical stimulation have been used to treat children who have cerebral palsy.  In neuromuscular electrical stimulation, electrical current actually elicits muscular contraction.  It may be applied on the top of the skin or through the skin.  If a muscle is stimulated when it should be contracting during a functional activity, the stimulation is called functional electrical stimulation (FES). The theory behind functional neuromuscular stimulation is that increased muscle contraction will improve strength and function.  The evidence for FES stimulation is somewhat more positive than for TES (discussed below).

In threshold electrical stimulation (TES), the current does not cause visible muscular contraction, and there are no side effects.  The theory underlying TES is that the stimulation increases the flow of blood to the muscles, which increases muscle strength and bulk.  TES is usually applied at home while the child sleeps.

Some controlled trials show subjective improvements with this type of therapy.  One study found an improvement in GMFM score at 1 year, and a recent review of 12 studies noted improvements in muscle function and / or strength.


Children with cerebral palsy need lifelong therapy.  If your baby suffered any complications during or around the time of birth and / or your physician failed to give magnesium sulfate or hypothermia treatments when indicated, and your child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, please contact the nationally recognized birth injury attorneys at Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers.  For decades, we have been helping Detroit, Michigan area families whose children have cerebral palsy.  We have numerous multi-million dollar verdicts that attest to our success, and we will fight to obtain the compensation you and your family deserve.  This includes  compensation for lifelong therapy of your child.  We will evaluate your case to determine if your newborn suffered injuries due the the negligence of the physician or medical staff, and you never pay any money until we win your case.  Call us at 888-419-2229.