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'Cast therapy' aims to rewire brain for kids with one-sided weakness

July 26, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
When right-handed people are forced to use their left for an extended period of time, their brains learn to adjust. That's the concept behind a new form of therapy that's helping children with weakness on one side get stronger.

A child with a broken arm might need occupational therapy, but that's not what happened to 4-year-old Bella. As a baby, her parents noticed she wasn't developing normally.

"She could not crawl, she could not stand, she could not cruise. She was mostly on the floor," said Andres Castano, Bella's father.

Doctors discovered Bella suffered a stroke-like event in utero.

"In the first trimester of gestation something went wrong with her brain and she was injured," said Andres.

Bella's left side was weak. At age 3 she started constrained induced therapy. It involves putting her "good" arm in a cast 24 hours a day for three weeks straight. The goal is to rewire the brain.

"The ability of the brain to make changes is amazing," said pediatric occupational therapist Carrie West. "You take that other side, that stronger side, out of that equation and they're going to start teaching the brain how to use the weaker side."

Research into this therapy started with adult stroke patients. At the Glendale Adventist Play to Learn Center, therapist Carrie West say she's seen significant improvement in many kids with one-sided weakness due to cerebral palsy and other causes . She credits the program's success not just to the cast, but to the continued therapy parents are taught to do at home.

Learning how to crawl symmetrically was a big deal for Bella, and since her parents have built her a therapeutic playground at home complete with monkey bars, she has ample opportunity to keep working on her left side.

"To put up monkey bars and ladders and therapy mats and all of that so that she can do a whole lot of gross motor skills, strengthening skills, in their own home definitely benefits Bella," said West.

Today Bella can navigate monkey bars, run, swim and pick up and sort multiple tiny items. Her parents say everything they learned with cast therapy helped her get here.

"She will go into kindergarten completely normal," said Andres.

The Glendale Adventist Play to Learn Center is one of the few facilities that offer constrained induced movement therapy for children.

The three-week program runs about $8,000. Since it's so new, insurance coverage is spotty.


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