An invention inspired by protective clothing worn by Russian cosmonauts, intensive suit therapy has shown promise in helping children re-build neurological connections lost to disability.
Gaining mobility through suit therapy
Most children wouldn’t take kindly to wearing a brightly-colored, banded suit over their clothing. But what if that suit, as different as it may look, restored the physical mobility? What if the suit provided a child proper posture, muscle tone, and patterns of movement previously lost to disability?
That’s the premise made by practitioners of intensive suit therapy, a complex invention that makes use of an orthotic suit comprised of a hat, vest, knee pads, and specifically-designed shoes that are worn by children and adults in a therapeutic setting. According to devotees of suit therapy, multiple adjustable rings and elastic bands on the garment can be adjusted to provide pressure and support to the muscle groups and joints affected by cerebral palsy that need more support than a child can provide.
Strategically-placed bungee cords can be adjusted to typical flexor and extensor muscle groups; the entire suit acts as a soft exoskeleton that brings a child’s body into proper alignment by adjusting limbs to correct abnormal muscle tone and re-train a child’s brain to recognize correct muscle movements.
When paired with an extensive exercise regimen, wearing the suit helps eliminate pathological reflexes many people with cerebral palsy contend with daily. According to research conducted by manufacturers of therapeutic suits, performing the exercises as directed while wearing the suit can reduce the effect of spasticity, athetosis, hypertonia, hypotonia, and ataxia. Additionally, suit therapy has shown promise in treating children with sensory integration challenges.
Therapeutic suits and their corresponding exercise programs have different names, such as the Adeli Suit, the NeuroSuit™, the Polish Suit and the TheraSuit™. Though there are some differences in the actual suits (the NeuroSuit™ uses gloves and elbow pads to increase arm compression), the concept of suit therapy is consistent: The garment brings to bear pressure-based proprioceptive input that directly impacts the vestibular system, and it does so in a way that can be modified to strengthen areas of a child’s body that have proven problematic. This way, a body can be brought into total or near-total alignment.
Because suit therapy is considered investigational, there is little independent information to attest to the level of success of this therapy. However, the Michigan-based TheraSuit™ LLC indicates that 64 percent of people who undergo their regimen experienced enhanced speech productivity and fluency. But the most notable improvements occur in the vestibular system, which benefit from proper body position and appropriate muscle tone.
Further claims indicate that the suit, when combined with an aggressive course of exercises, can help rebuild damaged reflex pathways within the central nervous system that can greatly improve a child’s gross motor capabilities.
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Exciting new developments
Like many therapeutic advances made in the treatment of cerebral palsy, necessity is the mother of invention. Suit therapy is no different.
Although it’s relatively new to the United States, suit therapy came to fruition in Europe in the 1970s after researchers realized that children with neurological disorders or developmental delays could benefit from technology used in space suits worn by cosmonauts in the Russian space program.
By design, space suits offset zero-gravity conditions in space. Researchers realized that aspects of a space suit’s construction could help the cosmonauts remain in proper alignment – and that the technology in a space suit could represent a starting point in terms of rehabilitating a person’s neurological and sensory issues.
One of the earliest garments, called the Adeli Suit, was created in the early 1970s and is still available. However, some researchers considered the suit complex and time-consuming to put on. Today, next-generation suits are available that are considered more user-friendly.
According to suit therapy practitioners, one of the reasons the suit yields results for people with disabilities is that it can be customized to meet a child’s physical needs. The rings and cords can be adjusted to correct a child’s specific physical issues.
The suit provides a vertical load of 30 to 80 pounds of pressure-based proprioceptive input that helps a person build strength that can allow them to sit up, roll over, hold their head up or perform other physical feats, according to suit therapy practitioners. But wearing the suit is only one facet of what is an intense and involved therapy for a child.
To receive the maximum benefit from the suit, a young person must take part in a comprehensive exercise program. The regimen may include equipment and tools used in typical physical therapy, including treadmills, universal exercise units, parallel bars and stair climbers – those that assist a child in performing repetitive, resistance exercises.
Patterning exercises can be performed in suspension and against gravity, which helps a child rebuild the connections with the brain that spur appropriate movement through repetitive movements. In short, by retraining the central nervous system, a child’s ability to maximize initiated movement and minimize uncontrolled movement improves.
Children as young as one year old can begin to take part in suit therapy; children under the age of 2 or 3 years old or who are otherwise small may not be able to wear the entire suit, but they should be able to take part in several components of the therapy program.
Therapy sessions may take place up to five or six days a week; and last three to four weeks. A typical session may take five hours or more. Because therapy at home will need to continue after sessions end, therapists encourage parental involvement during the treatment process so they can assist their child in an at-home environment.
Items to consider
When a child is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, his or her parents often look for therapies and treatments that might be helpful to a child beyond the traditional physical, occupational and speech therapies. Parents with a child that has a disability find out soon after a diagnosis that a plan of therapy is likely to be highly individualized; not all therapies are a good fit for all children.
Children with the following conditions may not be able to take part in suit therapy if they have heart problems, high blood pressure, hip subluxation that is less than 50 percent, diabetes, uncontrolled seizures, kidney issues, and scoliosis.
Parents should seek the advice of their child’s pediatrician or another qualified medical professional before placing their son or daughter in any therapy program. Doing so can help a parent determine, with all of the facts, whether such a therapy would be beneficial to his or her child. It’s also advisable that a parent continue to keep their child’s traditional physical, occupational, and speech therapists in the loop regarding the child’s care.
Parents are likely to consider costs. Suit therapy can run into the thousands of dollars, and most programs don’t include the cost of the suit itself, which costs in the thousands of dollars. Parents do not need to buy a suit to participate in therapy; they are trained during formal sessions with a therapist regarding how to help a child with his or her at-home regimen.
Although insurance providers are aware of suit therapy, its status as an investigational and experimental therapy means it is not likely to be covered with many insurance plans. As always, a parent should contact his or her insurance provider to determine what level of coverage, if any, exists.
Practitioners of suit therapy are generally physical therapists that have participated in a training program offered by organizations that have devised their own suit, or are involved in the manufacture of suits. Therapy can typically be found at physical therapy centers that offer other forms of physical and occupational therapy.
Obtain more information on intensive suit therapy
For more information on intensive suit therapy, or to obtain a list of contacts and articles on the subject, call 1-800-692-3352.