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Professional therapeutic massage therapy in Kansas City, MO by Aaron Harris, BCTMB

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Cerebral Palsy and Massage


Massage is an appropriate and useful treatment for people with Cerebral Palsy whose sensation and ability to communicate is intact. Massage can help these patients maintain muscle elasticity and improve motor skills.

What is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a term that refers to several possible injuries to the brain during pregnancy, at birth, or in early infancy. CP occurs in roughly 3 percent of live births in the United States.

Some of the most significant risk factors include:

  • Premature birth
  • Mothers smoking during pregnancy
  • Lack of prenatal care
  • Poverty

Cerebral Palsy is the result of brain damage, specifically in areas that control motor function. The condition is typically classified by when the injury occurs:

  • Prenatal is the most common and is often related to an illness affecting the mother during pregnancy. Infections, such as rubella, or medical conditions, such as, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, exposure to toxins, or abdominal injuries increase risk.
  • Birth Trauma is fairly rare, but can occur if the child suffers from a lack of oxygen during birth, or if some head trauma results from a difficult delivery.
  • Acquired CP occurs during early infancy and is often the result of an accident or child abuse, shaken baby syndrome, for example. Occasionally an infection can also cause brain damage.

Cerebral Palsy’s effects can be minor and barely noticeable, or it may be completely debilitating both physically and mentally.

CP is not a progressive disorder, though the symptoms may change over time as the child matures. In some cases, the patient’s brain and nervous system adapts and symptoms can disappear entirely around the age of seven.

Actor RJ Mitte has a mild form of Cerebral Palsy.
Actor RJ Mitte famously lives with a mild form of Cerebral Palsy.

Signs and Symptoms

There are further classifications of this condition: ataxic, athetoid, dystonic, spastic, and mixed.

  • Ataxic is rare, but involves chronic shaking, tremors, and poor balance.
  • Athetoid involves very weak muscles and involuntary writhing movements of the face, mouth, and extremities.
  • Dystonic is characterized by involuntary and slow twisting movements of the body and extremities.
  • Spastic is the most common form. Some areas of the body become so tensed that the antagonist (opposite) muscles completely let go, known as the “clasp-knife effect.”
  • Any combination of these types is known as Mixed CP.


A medical treatment plan for patients with cerebral palsy can vary widely, based on the type of symptoms and the body parts affected. They can range from medicines to control seizures and reduce muscle spasms to surgeries to lengthen muscles and realign vertebrae.

Massage for the Cerebral Palsy Patient

Massage therapy can play a valuable role in improving the quality of life for patients with CP. Almost all medical treatment plans include some form of physical therapy and massage to help retrain the muscle receptors, alleviate painful spasms, and maintain muscle tone in weaker muscles.

It is important that non-verbal patients have a system of communication that can signal to the therapist if the massage is too painful or needs to be focused on other parts of the body.

Deep Tissue massage can help release spasms and clenched muscles. Shiatsu can help with range of motion and increase muscle tone where needed. Trigger point therapy can be helpful, provided that sensation is intact.

I have worked with several massage clients suffering with painful spasms and other symptoms of cerebral palsy. These sessions have included work in the patient's hospital bed and wheelchair.

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