MMI program helps children with cerebral palsy sit up

Kim Falk used to prompt her son Ethan to lift his head and sit up straight for a picture.

"Show me your cute face," she would say.

Born with severe cerebral palsy, the 6-year-old has limited control of his trunk muscles.

But, thanks to a sitting study at the UNMC Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI), Ethan now sits up straighter and holds his head higher.

Sit, play and learn

Click on the image above to view a video about MMI's program that helps patients with cerebral palsy sit up. Double click on the image to see the video with your full screen.

Reggie Harbourne, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy at MMI, has studied sitting in children with cerebral palsy for much of her career.

Her latest study is funded by a $600,000 three-year grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. In collaboration with Nick Stergiou, Ph.D., a biomechanist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the study compares two treatments designed to improve sitting ability.

The control group receives physical therapy treatments twice a week while the experimental group receives the same therapy, but on top of a mat that vibrates randomly at different frequencies.

"The idea is that the feedback from the mat amps up the ability to sense where one's body is in space," Dr. Harbourne said, and therefore improves sitting skills.

Harbourne got the idea for her research from James Collins' studies at Boston University. He placed vibratory insoles in the shoes of stroke and Parkinson's patients to help them balance when they walk.

More from MMI

This story originally appeared in the Munroe-Meyer Institute's 2009 annual report. View the full report online.

Early results indicate that those using the vibratory mat have improved their sitting abilities slightly more than the control group, though both groups have become more stable.

Ethan was in the control group. Not only did his sitting improve, but he also increased his play skills.

Ethan learned to anticipate and adjust to a ball when playing catch. Because he could sit up, Ethan was better able to use his hands and even increased his attempts to communicate because he had things to look at.

Eating also has gotten easier and more enjoyable.

"Since he sits up straighter now, swallowing is easier and he doesn't work as hard," Faulk said. "He even gained two pounds in four months and he hadn't gained that much in the last two years."