by Alex Crocker
Would you rather ride in a wheelchair or ride a horse? Speak with a voice synthesizer, or make music? For many children with cerebral palsy, alternative therapies such as therapeutic riding and music therapy are providing alternatives to traditional medicine. Because cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage to the motor cortex before or shortly after birth, therapies that begin early in life can take advantage of the plasticity of the young brain to remap damaged areas and restore full mobility.
In Exeter, UK, Erzsebet Gordon teaches a therapeutic music class in which young cerebral palsy patients “use rhythm to strengthen their muscles.” Research shows that targeted exercises can enhance connections between neurons in the brain, which can lead to improved muscular control (Holloway, 2003). Patients undergoing music therapy are encouraged to complete the exercises needed for remapping in ways that are safer and more enjoyable than traditional therapies like drugs and surgery.
Similarly, therapeutic riding helps cerebral palsy patients regain sensory and motor skills, especially those used for walking. In a study published in the Pediatric Physical Therapy Journal, in which the mobility of 10 children with cerebral palsy was determined before and after 10 weeks of treatment, it was determined that therapeutic riding “has a positive effect on functional movement in children with cerebral palsy.”
According to Pia Tillberg, this improvement can be explained by the rhythmic motions of the horse at the walk and trot, which correspond to the “repeated movement [of the] human walking motion.” By stimulating the motor areas that control the muscles used for walking, therapeutic riding encourages neuron growth, in a sense “teaching” the brain—and thus the body—how to walk. Repetitive-movement based treatments like music therapy and therapeutic riding can help many patients build the strength and control that their muscles need for normal functioning.
While there is no “cure” for cerebral palsy, alternative therapies like music and therapeutic riding are providing hope for patients with cerebral palsy and other brain injuries.
Holloway, M. (2003). The Mutable Brain. Scientific American, 289 (3), 78-86.