What Does Low Tone Mean?
by Stacy Menz, Starfish Therapies
Muscle tone is the resting state of your muscles. When a child has low muscle tone it means that they need to put a lot more energy into getting their muscles to turn on to do what they want them to do. I often try to explain this to parents by describing that feeling when you finally get to sink into the couch or your favorite arm chair and relax and then someone calls you from the other room and you have to rev up the energy to get up. Think about having to do that every time you move because that’s what it can be like for kiddos who have low tone.
Generally kiddos with low tone seem to be squishable because they melt right into you when you hug or hold them. This is great for cuddling but if you are carrying a baby or kiddo around that is melting into you, it means they aren’t able to help support themselves in your arms so it can seem as if you are carrying a heavy weight around. As their muscles get stronger they get better at activating them so that if you are carrying them, they can hold their own trunk up without having to lean on you. Its amazing how much lighter this can make them feel! (Another way to get the idea is if you are holding a kiddo by their hands to help them stand and they just decide to have spaghetti legs and you weren’t expecting it).
When I talk about strength being a challenge for kids with low tone I am talking about not just their ability to generate enough force to move their arm or their leg, but also their endurance and their ability to switch their muscles on and off. These components all work together to produce movement.
I know that I talk about core strength a lot but for these kiddos its really important. Just think if your trunk (core) was as stable as a slinky. Do you think it would be easy to move your arms and legs, to do fine motor activities, to run and jump or even walk, to keep an upright posture in school to help with learning? It would be challenging to do all of these things and so many more. That’s why when I work with kids with low tone I am often doing activities that will challenge the whole body but also focus on the core. I also work to increase either how long they can do an activity (such as sitting on a ball for trunk control) or how many times they can do something (such as bridging) because this will help to increase the endurance of their muscles so they can stay working as long as they want them to.
Since it is harder to move and to activate their muscles, a lot of times they may need more practice, help and support, not to mention motivation to get moving! When they are little I do lots of tummy time to develop their butt muscles, anti-gravity trunk extensors, their head and neck muscles and their shoulder muscles. The more interesting you can make the activity the longer you can get them to want to play in this position. I do other activities as well, such as pull to sit to work on abs and head control (I make them work both going up and going down). Going down is often easier (until you get close to the ground) because their muscles are already turned on so they just have to keep them on so they don’t ‘crash’ unlike going up where they have to turn their muscles on and its really hard when you are flat on the ground because you are fully working against gravity. I could go on all day and I might have to do another post just on activities!
Since these kiddos have to put out so much more energy to do things than a person with regular muscle tone, and the fact that we are constantly asking them to do more, don’t be surprised if they get tired easily. For instance, it may not seem like it is that hard to sit in a chair to do work but if you think about all the energy they have to expend to keep their body up nice and straight its not surprising that they are tired. When they are little they may need to nap more often, especially if they are doing therapy. If you are in a mommy and me or a gymboree class you may notice that your kiddo needs to take breaks a little more frequently than the other kiddos. This is normal for them. However, you also want to remember the goal of working on their endurance so it doesn’t hurt to challenge them. Just like when I am training for a race, 3 miles may be in my comfort zone but to get to the marathon I will have to challenge myself to run a little bit further than my comfort zone allows each day.
TheraTogs or the Spio suit or even hip helpers are tools that can be helpful for kids with low tone to give them a little extra support in the core so that they can practice the skills they need to practice. I also use a lot of tickling to remind a muscle to turn on and stay on. Sometimes using a slightly unstable surface like a sitting disc or a therapy ball can also be a reminder to keep muscles on. Since it is unstable its a lot harder to sink into the support like they would be able to in a nice firm chair. Also using wedges (although I wish I could find these filled with sand in addition to the air filled ones) in a chair (tilted forward) can help to activate a child’s core for improved sitting as well. What are other tools that have helped either kids you have worked with or your own child – I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of ones I’ve thought of or used but I always love to hear new ideas!
Featured Guest Columnist: Stacy Menz, DPT, Board Certified Pediatric Clinical Specialist
Stacy, Starfish Therapies’ founder, is a pediatric physical therapist with both a Masters and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Boston University and is a board certified pediatric clinical specialist. She stumbled into this field when she realized she would get to play with kids all day long! In reality, she loves making a difference in the lives of kids and their families. In addition to doing rehabilitative work with kids, she also promotes overall wellness and prevention of developmental delays through education. Stacy is actively involved in her professional organizations and is on the editorial board of Impact, the publication of the Private Practice Section of the APTA, and serves on the education committee of the Pediatric Special Interest Group for the California Physical Therapy Association. Stacy and her colleagues are also actively involved in research and have an article submitted for publication.
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