Down syndrome refers to a disorder that occurs due to the existence of extra chromosomes, leading to a wide range of physical and cognitive challenges. Even though Down syndrome cannot be cured, physical therapy plays a crucial role in improving the quality of life for individuals with this condition. At Suarez Physical Therapy, we are dedicated to supporting and empowering individuals suffering from Down syndrome in Las Vegas through specialized treatment programs tailored to meet their unique needs.

What is Down Syndrome?

Normally, human beings have 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs, but people suffering from Down syndrome carry 47 chromosomes in total due to the additional chromosome 21. This genetic disease mainly affects the development and functioning of the body and brain.

Down syndrome can be characterized by various physical, cognitive, and developmental challenges. People suffering from Down syndrome often have distinct facial features, such as a smaller nose, upward-slanting eyes, and a flattened face. Additionally, they may have a lower muscle tone, resulting in difficulties with motor coordination and skills.

Types of Down Syndrome

There are three main types of Down syndrome, each with its unique genetic characteristics. These types include:

Trisomy 21 (Nondisjunction)

Trisomy 21 accounts for approximately 95% of cases. It occurs when there is a random error during cell division called non-disjunction. Nondisjunction leads to the existence of additional chromosome 21 found in every cell of the body. As a result, people who have trisomy 21 have 47 chromosomes rather than 46.

Mosaic Down Syndrome

Mosaic Down syndrome is a rarer form that accounts for roughly 2-4% of Down syndrome cases. It occurs when the error of nondisjunction happens in only some of the body's cells during early development. As a result, individuals with this kind of problem have a mixture of cells with the typical 46 chromosomes and cells with additional chromosome 21. The severity of symptoms can vary widely, depending on the percentage of cells affected.

Translocation Down Syndrome

Translocation Down syndrome accounts for approximately 3-4% of cases. It occurs when chromosome 21 breaks off during cell division and attaches to a different chromosome, usually chromosome 14. The total number of chromosomes is still 46, but the additional genetic substance from chromosome 21 can lead to Down syndrome characteristics. Translocation Down syndrome can be inherited from a parent who carries a balanced translocation, where the additional chromosome material is attached but does not cause any symptoms, or it can occur spontaneously.

Who is likely to be affected by Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome can occur in individuals of all races and ethnicities and affects people of both genders. However, certain factors increase the probability of giving birth to a child suffering from Down syndrome. The factors include:

Maternal Age

The most common risk factor for Down syndrome is advanced maternal age, specifically for pregnancies in women over 35 years. The risk increases with each passing year, although most babies who have Down syndrome are mainly born by women under 35 due to higher birth rates in younger women. However, the absolute risk of getting a child suffering from Down syndrome increases with maternal age.

Previous Child with Down Syndrome

If a parent has previously given birth to a baby with Down syndrome, there is a slightly increased risk of bearing another child with the condition. This risk is relatively low but higher than in the general population.

Genetic Carrier Status

In a small percentage of cases (roughly 3-4%), Down syndrome occurs due to a genetic rearrangement called translocation. This can be an inherited condition where a parent carries a balanced translocation, meaning they have an additional genetic substance of chromosome 21 joined to a different chromosome but do not exhibit any Down syndrome symptoms themselves. In such cases, there is an increased risk of passing on the additional chromosome material to their offspring, resulting in Down syndrome.

Symptoms Associated with Down Syndrome

While individuals with Down syndrome share some common characteristics, the specific manifestation and severity of symptoms can differ from person to person. Here are the key symptoms of Down syndrome:

Physical Features

  • Flat facial profile — Those who have Down syndrome often have a flat face, with a smaller nose, upward-slanting eyes, and a small mouth.
  • Almond-shaped eyes — The shape of the eyes may be distinct, with upward slanting and epicanthal folds (extra skin at the inner corners of the eyes fold).
  • Protruding tongue — This may be observed due to a smaller oral cavity.
  • Hypotonia/ Low muscle tone — Babies with Down syndrome often have reduced muscle tone, resulting in floppiness or lack of firmness in the muscles.
  • Small stature — Individuals with Down syndrome have a shorter stature compared to the general population.

Cognitive and Intellectual Abilities

  • Intellectual disability — Most people with Down syndrome experience mild to moderate intellectual disability. The intellectual functioning level can vary, and early intervention and education can support cognitive development.

Developmental Delays

  • Delayed motor milestones — Children with Down syndrome may experience delays in reaching developmental milestones, like sitting up, walking, crawling, and talking. Early intervention and therapies can help promote motor skills development.

Language and Speech

  • Speech delays — Individuals with Down syndrome may experience delays in speech and language development. They may have difficulty with articulation, clarity, and vocabulary acquisition. Speech therapy can be beneficial in improving communication skills.

Learning Difficulties

  • Learning disabilities — People with Down syndrome may face challenges in learning and academic achievement, particularly in areas such as reading, writing, and mathematics. Specialized education and individualized instruction can support their learning needs.

Health Conditions

  • Congenital heart problems — Approximately 50% of individuals with Down syndrome are born with congenital heart defects, which may require medical intervention.
  • Hearing and vision defects— Hearing loss, vision impairments, and eye conditions like cataracts and strabismus (crossed eyes) are more common in people suffering from Down syndrome.
  • Increased susceptibility to infections — People suffering from Down syndrome may have a higher risk of respiratory infections, ear infections, and other common illnesses.

What Causes Down Syndrome?

The primary cause of Down syndrome is genetic abnormality involving having extra copies of chromosomes 21. The specific causes of this condition can be categorized into three main types:

Trisomy 21 (Nondisjunction)

Approximately 95% of Down syndrome cases occur from a random error in cell division called non-disjunction. During reproductive cell formation (sperm and egg), the chromosomes should separate properly so that each cell receives one copy of each chromosome. However, in nondisjunction, the chromosomes fail to separate correctly, leading to an egg or sperm with extra chromosome 21. When fertilization occurs with this abnormal cell, the resulting embryo will compose three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two.

Mosaic Down Syndrome

In rare cases (about 2-4% of Down syndrome cases), the error of nondisjunction occurs after fertilization. As a result, some body cells have the typical 46 chromosomes, while others may have an additional copy of chromosome 21. This mosaic pattern of cells with different chromosome numbers leads to mosaic syndrome.

Translocation Down Syndrome

This accounts for roughly 4% and involves the rearrangement of genetic material between chromosomes. In this type, a portion of chromosome 21 breaks off and attaches itself to a different chromosome, usually chromosome 14. While the total number of chromosomes remains at 46, the presence of the additional genetic material from chromosome 21 can still lead to Down syndrome characteristics. Translocation Down syndrome is acquired from a guardian who has balanced translocation, where the additional chromosome material is attached but does not cause any symptoms, or it can occur spontaneously.

How is Down syndrome Diagnosed?

Down syndrome is diagnosed through a combination of prenatal screening tests and diagnostic procedures. The diagnosis is confirmed before or after birth. Below are some of the methods used to diagnose Down syndrome:

Prenatal Screening Tests

  • Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) — This blood test analyzes the fetal DNA present in a mother's blood to screen for various chromosomal abnormalities, including Down syndrome. NIPT is highly accurate but not diagnostic. If the test indicates a higher risk, further diagnostic testing is recommended.
  • Combined First-Trimester Screening — It combines blood tests measuring specific proteins and hormones from the mother's blood with an ultrasound examination of the fetus to check Down syndrome risks. It provides an estimation of the likelihood of the condition but does not offer a defined diagnosis.

Diagnostic Tests

  • Chorionic villus sampling (CVS) — This involves obtaining a sample of cells from the placenta to analyze the fetal chromosomes. It is performed between the 10th and 12th weeks of pregnancy. CVS carries a small risk of complications.
  • Amniocentesis — Amniocentesis involves extracting a small amount of amniotic fluid from the fetus's surroundings through a needle. This fluid contains fetal cells that can be examined for chromosomal abnormalities. Amniocentesis is usually performed between the 15th and 20th weeks of pregnancy. It also carries a small risk of complications.

Postnatal Diagnosis

  • Physical examination and clinical features — After birth, the presence of physical characteristics commonly associated with Down syndrome, along with clinical evaluation, can suggest a diagnosis.
  • Karyotype analysis — In this, they extract a sample of blood to analyze the chromosomes and confirm if there is any extra chromosome 21.

When to Seek Physical Therapy

Physical therapy for individuals with Down syndrome can be beneficial at various stages of life. Here are some key points to consider regarding when to seek physical therapy:

Early Intervention

Early intervention is crucial for children with Down syndrome. Physical therapy can begin soon after birth or during infancy to promote motor development and address issues related to low muscle tone, delayed milestones, and motor coordination difficulties. Early physical therapy can help lay a foundation for improved motor skills and overall physical development.

Developmental Milestones

If your child with Down syndrome is experiencing delays in achieving developmental milestones, such as sitting up, crawling, walking, or other motor skills, it may be an appropriate time to seek physical therapy. Physical therapists can assess your child's motor abilities, identify areas of concern, and provide interventions to support their progress.

Gross Motor Challenges

If you notice persistent challenges in your child's gross motor skills, such as difficulties with balance, coordination, or strength, physical therapy can help address these issues. Physical therapists can design exercises and activities to improve muscle tone, balance, coordination, and overall motor control.

Preparing for School

As your child prepares to enter school, physical therapy can assist in optimizing their physical capabilities and independence. Physical therapists can work on skills required for navigating the school environment, such as walking, stair climbing, and participating in physical education activities.

Transitioning to Adolescence and Adulthood

During the transition to adolescence and adulthood, physical therapy can play a role in promoting independence, mobility, and maintaining overall physical health. Physical therapists can address specific concerns related to postural alignment, body mechanics, flexibility, and strength to support individuals suffering from Down syndrome in their daily activities and participation in the community.

Post-Surgical Rehabilitation

In some cases, individuals suffering from Down syndrome may require surgery for certain conditions, such as cardiac issues or orthopedic concerns. Physical therapy is often an essential component of post-surgical rehabilitation, helping to restore mobility, strength, and function following surgical interventions.

The Role of Physical Therapy in Down Syndrome

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the overall management and treatment of individuals with Down syndrome. The primary goal of physical therapy is to promote physical development, improve motor skills, enhance mobility, and maximize functional independence. Below are key aspects of how physical therapy is used to treat individuals suffering from Down syndrome:

Gross Motor Skills Development

Physical therapy focuses on improving gross motor skills, such as crawling, walking, running, jumping, and balance. Therapists work on strengthening muscles, improving coordination and body awareness, and enhancing overall motor control.

Muscle Tone and Strength

People suffering from Down syndrome often have low muscle tone (hypotonia) and weaker muscles. Physical therapy aims to address these issues by incorporating exercises that improve muscle tone, strength, and endurance. Therapists may use a variety of techniques, such as resistance training, therapeutic exercises, and therapeutic play activities.

Motor Planning and Coordination

People suffering from Down syndrome mainly face challenges with motor planning and coordination, which can impact their ability to perform complex movements and tasks. Physical therapy interventions focus on activities that enhance motor planning, coordination, sequencing, and spatial awareness.

Posture and Alignment

Physical therapists work with people suffering from Down syndrome to improve posture, alignment, and body mechanics. They provide guidance on proper body positioning and techniques for sitting, standing, and moving to optimize stability, reduce the risk of injury, and promote efficient movement patterns.

Mobility and Independence

Physical therapy helps people suffering from Down syndrome achieve optimal mobility and independence in their daily activities. Therapists may utilize assistive devices, such as walkers or orthotics, if needed, and provide training on safe and efficient ways to navigate the environment.

Flexibility and Range of Motion

People suffering from Down syndrome may have limitations in joint flexibility and range of motion. Physical therapists use stretching exercises, range of motion activities, and joint mobilization techniques to improve flexibility, prevent contractures, and enhance overall joint function.

Balance and Coordination

Physical therapy interventions focus on improving balance and coordination skills, which can contribute to enhanced stability, safety, and participation in activities. Therapists may utilize specific exercises, balance training activities, and coordination drills to address these areas.

Adapted Physical Activities

Physical therapists often incorporate adapted physical activities and games to make therapy sessions engaging and enjoyable for people suffering from Down syndrome. These activities not only promote physical development but also encourage social interaction, cooperation, and confidence.

Physical Therapy Exercises that Can Help with Down Syndrome

Physical therapy exercises can play a significant role in supporting people suffering from Down syndrome by addressing their specific physical challenges and promoting their overall well-being. Here are some exercises commonly used in physical therapy to help:

Core Strengthening

  • Planks — Perform modified planks by supporting the body on forearms and knees or forearms and toes.
  • Sit-ups — Use modified techniques such as assisted sit-ups or sit-ups performed on an incline bench.

Balance and Coordination

  • Single-leg Stance — Practice standing on one leg while maintaining balance.
  • Balance Board Exercises — Perform exercises on a balance board or wobble board to improve balance control.

Flexibility and Range of Motion

  • Stretching Exercises — Focus on stretching major muscle groups, including hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and upper body muscles.
  • Range of Motion Exercises — Perform controlled movements that target specific joints, such as shoulder circles or leg swings.

Motor Skills Development

  • Crawling Exercises — Practice crawling on hands and knees or using a crawling tunnel to improve motor coordination and strength.
  • Obstacle Courses — Set up obstacle courses with various physical challenges to enhance motor skills, coordination, and problem-solving abilities.

Strengthening Exercises

  • Resistance Band Exercises — Use resistance bands for exercises targeting different muscle groups, such as arm curls or leg extensions.
  • Medicine Ball Exercises — Perform exercises involving medicine balls to improve muscle strength and coordination.

Mobility and Endurance

  • Walking and Running — Engage in walking or running exercises to improve cardiovascular fitness, endurance, and overall mobility.
  • Stationary Cycling — Use a stationary bike to improve lower body strength, cardiovascular fitness, and endurance.

Posture and Body Mechanics

  • Postural Exercises — Focus on exercises that promote proper alignment and body positioning, such as shoulder retractions or scapular squeezes.
  • Body Mechanics Training — Provide guidance on proper techniques for sitting, standing, lifting, and carrying objects to promote optimal posture and body mechanics.

Find a Las Vegas Physical Therapist Near Me

If you or your loved one has Down syndrome and requires physical therapy in Las Vegas, Suarez Physical Therapy is here to help. We believe in a comprehensive approach to care and we collaborate closely with individuals with Down syndrome, their families, and other healthcare professionals to develop personalized treatment plans that address their specific needs and goals. Contact us today at 702-368-6778 to schedule a consultation and take the first step towards enhancing physical function and well-being for individuals with Down syndrome.