How Functional Neurology Can Help Your Child
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Children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, learning disabilities, and other related conditions often face a number of challenges for which there are an even larger number of therapies. Functional neurology is one therapy that works directly with the nervous system, helping to retrain the brain and peripheral nervous system to function appropriately. Functional neurology is the perfect complement to biomedical treatment.
Neuroplasticity—The Ever-Changing Brain
Up until very recently, researchers thought that the brain was hardwired, or that it was not able to regenerate connections between neurons. They thought that, essentially, once your brain deteriorated or was injured—or if you were born with a certain neuronal dysfunction—it could not be healed or improved.
Although research investigating neuroplasticity began about forty years ago, only recently has the medical world accepted it. As a result, many therapies and treatments have arisen based on the brain’s plasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire.
Norman Doige, MD, author of two books I regularly recommend and give away, The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, is a psychiatrist and neuroplasticity researcher. His books explore the vast world of research being carried out to investigate how neuroplasticity can be leveraged to heal the brain and recover function in many different circumstances from chronic pain to Parkinson's to ADHD, Autism, and Sensory Processing Disorders. His books are educational and inspirational and gave me reason to dig deeper for interventions that can help leverage the brain’s plasticity.
You can also check out my previous blog post about neuroplasticity and how it gives us hope for our children’s conditions.
What is Functional Neurology?
Functional neurology a clinical practice, based on neuroscience, that assesses all regions of the nervous system for functional weaknesses and treats those weaknesses to leverage the brain’s plasticity and improve neurological function. Instead of targeting brain pathology, it targets brain function. So functional neurology is a great compliment to biomedical treatments that target pathologies that have gone awry in our children. Biomedical treatments will have a better chance of being helpful when the nervous system is primed for success by functional neurology therapies.
Ted Carrick, Ph.D., DC, is credited with developing the practice of functional neurology in the mid-1970s. A functional neurologist will take a complete medical history of your child upon your first visit. They will perform a thorough neurological examination, which may include evaluation of eye movements, assessment of posture and balance, testing of reflexes and strength, and analysis of body movements.
A functional neurologist is looking, in particular, for retained primitive reflexes, something you may have already experienced with an occupational therapist. If you don’t know what retained primitive reflexes are, check out my cheat sheet here. We are born with these primitive reflexes, which serve the purpose of keeping us alive when we are infants. But as we develop, these reflexes are supposed to be lost. If they are not lost between the ages of 12 and 18 months, the brain doesn’t develop appropriately. Primitive reflexes impede our ability to seek out the sensory environment, which allows us to take in new inputs so that the brain can learn.
Functional Neurology Therapies
A functional neurologist will use a customized approach based on your child’s assessment. Your child’s therapy may include:
- Core strengthening if they have poor core strength, which can be observed in poor posture, or slumping forward when they sit.
- Vestibular (balance) rehabilitation, for children who have difficulty feeling comfortable in their space or have trouble with motion, spinning, or have other vestibular processing or proprioceptive problems.
- Light, sound, scent, and touch stimulations are done to help with integration of some primitive reflexes.
- Vision therapies (eye exercises) may be recommended to help strengthen certain parts of the brain that affect function.
- Cognitive training, or brain exercises that focus the mind on certain activities or puzzles, are sometimes included.
- Chiropractic adjustments may be performed to enhance blood flow to the brain and improve brain function. In addition, a study in 2016 1 discovered that spinal adjustments can positively impact function in the prefrontal cortex.
Certain inexpensive software and tools may be recommended, and some items your child will use for this type of therapy are already found in your home. It’s a very accessible therapy that your child will be able to take out of the doctor’s office and out into her life.
Is Functional Neurology Essential to Recovery?
The way I look at it is, we really don’t know which comes first. Is it that the dysfunction in our child’s bodies is a result of what is going on in the brain, or is the dysfunction in their brains the result of what is going on in the body? Most likely, it’s a bi-directional relationship. And we may never know which came first or which direction needs more attention. Because the nervous system—the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system—is definitely involved in our children’s health complications, we have to work directly with this system in some way. Working on brain function along with body function is so important because of how intricately connected they are. That’s where functional neurology comes in.
The best example I can give you of the importance of working bi-directionally is vagal tone and digestion. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the body and impacts many areas of the body, in particular, digestive function. If your child has poor vagal tone, they will have poor digestion. And what do we see in so many children with autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorders, and learning disabilities? Gut imbalances, leaky gut, constipation and related detoxification difficulties, and immune challenges (70 percent of the immune system resides in the gut). If your child has been struggling to sustain good digestion despite your many attempts to alleviate his digestive difficulties, he may need to work on his vagal tone to support long-term digestive healing.
Finding a Functional Neurology Practitioner
Check out the International Association of Functional Neurology and Rehabilitation (IAFNR) website for a list of functional neurology practitioners. In addition, a member directory can also be found on the American Chiropractic Neurology Board’s website.
If you are looking for a referral, contact me here or in my Facebook group, the My Child Will Thrive Village, and I will help connect you with someone in your area or someone who can work remotely with your child.
Are you curious about functional neurology? Do you have experience with it already? Leave a comment or question here on the blog, or head over to our Facebook group, the My Child Will Thrive Village to share your story with parents just like you.