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When small movements make a big difference

Kristen B. Morales

February 13, 2018

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It's not just large muscle movement and heavy weights that help build your muscles; small, quick movements can help train muscles as well.

This is the idea behind a new University of Georgia study that aims to improve muscle quality and strength and balance control in children with cerebral palsy. By standing on a small vibrating platform for 10 minutes a day—something that can be done at home as part of a family's regular routine—researchers plan to measure the effects on muscle development, balance and physical activity over a 12-month period.

Because of damage to areas of the brain that affect movement, people with cerebral palsy have problems maintaining their balance and participating in physical activity. While there is no cure, interventions such as vibration therapy may make a positive change in someone's life.

"We've done some pilot work suggesting it does have a positive effect on their muscles and bones, and as we're conducting these studies, parents are telling us their children are falling less" said Christopher Modlesky, who is conducting the study with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. "We suspect that vibration is having a direct effect on their muscles by increasing their activity. It may also have an indirect effect by improving their balance and increasing their use of muscles through increased physical activity. Physical activity is very low in children with CP. If we can increase it, their future development of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and osteoporosis, may be reduced."

Modlesky, the UGA Athletic Association Professor of Kinesiology in the UGA College of Education's department of kinesiology, plans to launch the study in the coming months. He is now recruiting participants for the randomized controlled trial—specifically, 44 children with cerebral palsy, ages 5-11, who can walk without an assistive device, to take part in a six-month intervention with a six-month follow-up to determine the effects of the intervention.

Children will be required to come into the new Neuromusculoskeletal Health Lab at UGA's Ramsey Center for testing five times during the 12-month study. Three of the test points will include muscle assessment using an MRI scanner at UGA's Bio-imaging Research Center. The children will also wear physical activity monitors at each testing point throughout the study. Half of the participants will be given a vibrating plate to take home and, with the assistance of UGA researchers, set up for daily use; other participants will receive a plate that simply makes a noise, for research control purposes.

The collaborative study includes Dr. Robert Bruce, an orthopedic surgeon at Emory University and director of the cerebral palsy program for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, as well as Karl Newell in the College of Education's department of kinesiology and Ye Shen from UGA's College of Public Health.

Modlesky said he and his team will be studying several aspects of participants' physical health during the study, including muscle strength, balance, physical activity and physical function. If what researchers saw in pilot tests continues, Modlesky said children may see an added benefit of greater overall confidence in their movement.

"Really, our lab is looking at what's going to help children perform better overall. It's not just about having stronger muscles and improved balance. In the end, you want the children to have better health and a better quality of life," he said. "If a child thinks certain movements are too challenging, then they probably won't be as physically active. But if the movements are easier to perform and they feel more confident about them, they will probably be more active. Stronger muscles and better balance should lead to more physical activity and better health."

To take part in the study or for more information, email the Neuromusculoskeletal Health Lab or call 706-395-5085.

Related links: Department of Kinesiology