For many children who are idiopathic toe-walkers, physical therapists often take the conservative approach. We have many things in our arsenal to help children improve without undergoing costly and painful surgery. Outside of stretching and strengthening exercises, we might recommend ankle foot orthoses (AFOs) for day time and/or night time wear. Depending on the child’s range of motion measurements, walking mechanics, and underlying pathology, different types of orthotics might be recommended. We often work closely with orthotists (professionals who design medical supportive devices such as braces) to make sure each child receives the individualized care and equipment he needs to gain full function and optimal alignment.
Here are reasons why your physical therapist might have recommended night splints for your child:
- The main goals of physical therapy interventions for toe-walkers are to increase ankle dorsiflexion range of motion and to decrease possible contractures that are associated with the condition. Physical therapy exercise programs include stretching the calf muscles, strengthening the trunk muscles, manual therapy, treadmill training, balance training, and ankle mobility training. Sometimes, in stubborn cases of toe-walking, orthotics are needed to maintain the range of motion gained throughout daily exercise sessions.
- If you’ve ever tried to stretch your pre-schooler’s muscles, you know that children can be active and fidgety. They don’t tolerate passive stretches as well as adults and might complain of boredom, pain, or ticklishness. The most effective stretches are those held for a prolonged period of time at a joint’s end range. Night splints allow for increased stretch time at the ankle joint, because the child is sleeping or resting when they are in place.
- The best time to gain range is when a child is relaxed. Since children relax more during sleep, even more range can be gained through passive stretching using a night time AFO.
- This is where the night-time splint comes in. While the daytime AFO is a rigid orthosis that keeps your child’s ankles from plantarflexing (pointing down) past neutral while he walks, the night time AFO is a much more dynamic system. Night splints can be adjusted as the ankles gain more range into dorsiflexion. They provide a low-load, prolonged-duration stretch that helps with contracture reduction and counters high tone.
- In the literature, night splints have been found to be effective for contractures at a variety of joints, and can be useful in brachial plexus injuries, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy.
As pediatric physical therapists, we rarely recommend over-the-counter orthotics for your child’s orthopedic needs. By consulting with an orthotist, we make sure each child is fitted to the most comfortable and developmentally appropriate custom foot wear for his condition. Usually, children who adhere to a strict physical therapy program and who receive the right orthoses can see a complete change to their posture and gait mechanics in as short as 6 months’ time.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Evidence-based care guideline for management of idiopathic toe walking in children and young adults ages 2 through 21 years. Cincinnati (OH): Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; 2011 Feb 15. 17 p. [49 references]