Alternative Medicines and Treatments for Cerebral Palsy

Doctor Checking Baby's ArmMany families who have children with CP explore complementary or alternative medicines (CAMs). CAMs cover a wide range of topics and ideas. They can be therapies or movement programs such as hydrotherapy, yoga, Feldenkrais or therapeutic riding. These kinds of programs are CAMS that may complement or support a traditional therapy or treatment program by providing opportunities for moving in ways that may be fun or relaxing, but perhaps have not been proven to specifically address the symptoms of CP. There are also experimental treatments like stem cells where there are still many questions about safety and/or proof of benefit. Other treatments, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) have not been embraced by many mainstream physicians because there is a large body of research which has shown that HBOT is no more effective than placebo in addressing the symptoms of CP. For these reasons it is important to identify what you mean when using the term "CAMs" and the specific goals you wish to accomplish in pursuing CAMs for treatment.

For instance are you searching for pain relief, better range of motion, improved balance, an activity that provides relaxation? Or are you looking for more drastic changes in mobility? Many CAMs like yoga have anecdotal evidence to support their use in CP and offer great opportunities for movement and exercise. In something like acupuncture there is a large body of research and a 5000-year history to support its use for general pain relief. However, these treatments may not have been extensively researched in people with CP and formally proven to help with things like spasticity or fine motor control.

What Makes CAMs Appealing to Parents?
  • Excitement about new ideas
  • Belief in "natural" things
  • Hearing testimonials/stories about an alternative treatment or program (i.e My friend's son did this or used this and this great result occurred.)
  • Frustration with slow pace of child's developmental changes, and with emerging research breakthroughs

On the internet, there are many anecdotal reports and promotional claims about various treatments for CP. However, many of these treatments, do not stand up to rigorous scientific investigation or have not been tested yet. It is important to be objective. Consider the potential risks along with the potential benefits so that you will not be spending lots of time, money, and false hope unnecessarily. In addition, some treatments may harm the child. Unknown risks do not mean that risks do not exist. For example, "natural things" such as dietary supplements and herbal products may interact with other products or medications a child with CP may be taking. They also may have unwanted side effects on their own. Seek information and insight from professionals and people not associated with selling the product or therapy you are interested in pursuing.

Discussing CAMs can lead to heated discussions between professionals and parents. Approach these discussions objectively and with as much humility and honesty as possible so that everyone may learn from each other. Keep in mind that if you are doing more than one therapy or treatment at a time you may not know what changes to attribute to which treatment. For more information and ideas about how to think through treatment options refer to our page on Cerebral Palsy Treatment Options.

What About Stem Cells and CP?

Stem cells are the master cells of our bodies. They are how we grow new skin, hair and heal broken bones. All stem cells, regardless of their source in the body, have the potential to develop into many different cell types for use throughout the body, while also retaining their ability to produce more stem cells, a process called self-renewal.

Experiments over the last several years have shown that stem cells from one tissue may give rise to cell types of a completely different tissue. For example, a blood-forming adult stem cell (meaning non-embryonic) in the bone marrow normally gives rise to many types of blood cells. This means that it may be possible to use stem cells generally thought to be blood-forming stem cells for something like neurological repair. This is why stem cells are being explored as a potential treatment for CP. In theory these cells could potentially help repair and restore damaged tissue and connections in the brain. Stem cell therapy remains an area of great debate within the research community. Additional research using adult stem cells is necessary to understand their full potential and safety as future therapies.

Research on Stem Cells as a Treatment for CP?

It is still unknown whether stem cell treatment is a viable option for neurological repair. There are a few completed and ongoing stem cell trials for CP worldwide that are exploring the efficacy and safety of stem cells for people with cerebral palsy. The United States has a few current active stem cell studies. You may visit the following website and search for studies currently recruiting.

The ISSR (International Society for Stem Cell Research) website offers excellent information to help consumers understand more about stem cells and what is known currently about their potential applications in medicine.