“Down Syndrome,” is a term taken from the nineteenth century English physician Dr. J.L.H. Down that has replaced the now out of favor term “Mongoloid” or “Mongolism.” Down Syndrome is a congenital disorder caused by having an extra 21st chromosome. Among its typical manifestations are shortness of stature, a flat-shaped face, and mild to severe mental retardation.
Down Syndrome is also characterized by certain physical deficiencies that can be aided by the use of physiotherapy. The earlier in a child’s life that such physiotherapy is started, the better. Though physiotherapy will not cure Down Syndrome and its developmental manifestations, it can help a child develop certain abilities that will enable it to better cope with Down Syndrome.
Because of their physical limitations and the difficulties that they encounter, Down Syndrome children naturally try to work out various alternatives and workarounds to do what they need to do. But when these compensation strategies are developed just through happenstance and individual trial and error like that, even when they “work” to some extent they may not be the best options. They may, for instance, involve bad posture that leads to pain later in life. So the purpose of the physiotherapy is to guide the child to healthier such strategies.
Among the issues that physiotherapy focuses on in young children with Down Syndrome is hypotonia. Hypotonia refers to a lack of muscle tone. A Down Syndrome baby, for instance, will tend to flop in rag doll fashion.
The ligaments in a Down Syndrome child are sometimes loose enough to not support the bones properly. This can be seen in a Down Syndrome baby who lies with legs splayed. As the child develops, they may get into the habit of locking their knees to make up for the weakness in their legs that makes it difficult for them to support themselves.
Down Syndrome children also typically have shorter limbs than comparable size children without Down Syndrome, which affects how they do even everyday activities like sitting and reaching.
Through physiotherapy, Down Syndrome children can be exercised in ways that strengthen them, develop their gross motor skills, and keep them away from bad habits and less than optimal compensation. With the right foundation in childhood, they can then go on to lead fuller and healthier lives through adulthood.
Physiotherapy for Down Syndrome children need not be limited to formal sessions with a physical therapist. Parents can also be trained to structure their activities and play with their Down Syndrome child in a way that constitutes physiotherapy. Exercising and moving correctly then become habits of everyday life for the Down Syndrome child, not just some special thing that’s done when they meet with a physical therapist.
About Down Syndrome