Blog & News

Back to Blog & News

Spinal Muscular Atrophy & Physical Therapy

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a genetic disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement.

In a healthy person, this gene produces a protein that is necessary for the nerves that control our muscles to function. If this gene does not exist, the nerve cells cannot function properly, which causes the muscles to weaken and waste away, and eventually affecting certain motor skills like eating, breathing, and walking.

Although there is no approved treatment for SMA, both physical and occupational therapy can help.


Signs and Symptoms

  • Muscle wasting
  • Respiratory infections and lung disease
  • Hand tremors
  • Spinal deformity (scoliosis)
  • Involuntary tongue movements
  • Low muscle tone that makes the child’s body feel loose
  • Absent or decreased deep tendon reflexes
  • Tight joints that do not bend or stretch all the way, or possibly don’t move at all

How is it Diagnosed?

Although spinal muscular atrophy may be hard to diagnosis, it begins with a simple observation of the signs and symptoms by your physical therapist.  If it’s suspected, a blood test is given to identify the specific cause of the disease and can identify almost 95% of all cases.  Lastly, a muscle biopsy can be done to determine any nerve deterioration.

There are three main classifications of SMA:

Type I – This is the most serve type of SMA where the muscles that control breathing are weak. Most people who develop this don’t live past age two due to many breathing problems.

Type II – This may affect children six to eighteen months old. The symptoms range from moderate to severe and usually involve the legs more than the arms.

Type III – This is the mildest form of the disease and usually starts when children are two to seventeen years old.

How can Physical Therapy Help?

Physical therapists may teach parents how to perform chest drainage techniques, and help with breathing techniques to keep patients with SMA breathing well.

Physical therapy uses different exercises to help prevent or slow respiratory failure, and improve and maintain mobility.


Your physical therapist will develop strategies that will improve developmental skills:

  • Floor mobility
  • Learning upright positions and skills
  • Changing positions
  • Head and trunk control


Physical therapy can help slow any deterioration in muscle strength and prolong the ability to walk. Physical therapists design these exercises to keep patients with SMA active and moving.


Physical therapy can design standing programs to prevent bone-mineral density loss, maintain muscle flexibility and length, promote musculoskeletal development, and prevent contractures.


For more information about Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and how Access Physical Therapy & Wellness can help, please contact us today.