Pediatric Massage Benefits for Down Syndrome

Pediatric Massage Benefits for Down Syndrome

Our bodies are made up of cells, inside these cells are our genetic material called genes. Genes are arranged on a rod type structure called a chromosome and carry all of our inherited traits. Normally, each nucleus carries 23 pairs of chromosomes with half being inherited from each parent. In the event that a child has a full or partial extra copy of Chromosome 21, the individual will have a congenital disorder known as Down Syndrome. The most common form of Down Syndrome is often called "trisomy 21," because individuals with this condition have three copies of the 21st chromosome.

According to the National Down Syndrome Society, "One in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down Syndrome, making it the most common genetic birth condition." The statistics are staggering especially taking into account that there are more than 400,000 Americans currently living with Down Syndrome in the United States. Common symptoms associated with Down Syndrome include potential impairment of cognitive ability, low muscle tone (hypotonia), congenital heart disease and other cardiac needs, seizure disorders, constipation, spinal cord compression, atlanto-axial instability (characterized by excessive movement at the junction between the atlas (C1) and axis (C2)) and physical appearance characteristics including short stature and a broad facial profile. All of which are considerations when we think of safely and effectively applying pediatric massage therapy.

People with Down Syndrome have an increased risk for certain medical conditions, especially as children, and the use of diverse methods of treatment are encouraged. Massage is one type of additional therapy that is gaining popularity with peer-reviewed and scientific studies showing the benefits of massage for children with Down Syndrome, along with parents reporting the benefits they see first hand.

The Research

In a five month study, researchers found that "significant, lasting improvement in motor skills" were found in groups of children with Down Syndrome who were massaged by therapists, as well as parents. Additionally "an unanticipated consequence" was an unexpected jump in language skill for children affected by Down syndrome. This study is based around low income solutions for children with exceptionalities and wanted to measure the impact of training parents to massage their own children would have. The results speak to parents using massage as a viable option in helping with their child's healthcare concerns.

Another study found similarly exciting results, 21 young children (average age, two years) with Down Syndrome receiving early intervention (physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy) were chosen for two month study. The study used two groups, one receiving a half-hour reading activity and the other a half-hour of massage therapy. The children were assessed for development and muscle tone on the first and last day of the study. Children in the massage group revealed "larger gains in fine and gross motor functioning and less severe limb hypotonicity" as compared to the children in the reading group at the end of the two month study.

Every child deserves to receive the effects of touch therapy in a unique style customized for their best care. They may benefit from different gentle techniques, varied length of sessions and gentle application. Evidence suggests that pediatric massage may improve muscle tone, increase performance on motor tasks and provide much needed relief from constipation by improving motility.

Pediatric Massage Considerations

A detailed health history and intake form is required before beginning any session, whether it is a hands-on therapeutic provided by a certified pediatric massage therapist or techniques shared with parents. In order to practice best care, the full health profile must be reviewed and a treatment plan developed.

Specific caution should be practiced in relation to any pre-existing cardiac conditions, hypotonicity due to affected muscles and joints, and atlanto-axial instability. In some cases, as much as the therapist may wish to address low muscle tone, the techniques employed may have to be adapted to practice caution in relation to cardiac issues. When atlanto-axial instability is present, no traction should be applied to the neck, and careful positioning is imperative. Always watch nonverbal cues closely, as there may be a delayed response to discomfort and/or pain due to higher sensory threshold. To address constipation, abdominal massage may be applied to improve gastrointestinal function and increase motility. It is important that all massage strokes and techniques follow the direction of the intestinal tract, and are provided at least thirty minutes following eating. The child should be in a relaxed and comfortable position and welcome to massage.

With more and more children being diagnosed with Down Syndrome, it is important that massage therapists wishing to practice pediatric massage therapy become educated in safe and effective approaches, to become a professional, active part of a child's treatment team.