Musculoskeletal Effects of Down Syndrome

Pediatric Orthopedics

Musculoskeletal Effects of Down Syndrome

Down syndrome is one of the most common genetic disorders. It affects about 1 in 800 births. Its primary affect is mental retardation and a number of physical abnormalities. The child may have special medical problems of the heart, stomach, eyes and other parts of the body. Some problems in Down syndrome involve the bones and joints (musculoskeletal system).

Musculoskeletal Effects of Down

Children with Down syndrome may have joints, such as the hip or knee, that slip out of place or become dislocated. Joint laxity in the neck may be excessive. This can lead to compression of the spinal cord.

Early Medical Intervention

Getting early medical care and treatment (intervention) can improve the health of a child with Down syndrome and address some musculoskeletal problems. Children grow most rapidly during the first three years of life. Ask your pediatrician for a comprehensive medical evaluation as soon as your baby is born.

Treatment Options

The doctor may recommend a special program of physical therapy, exercise or other activities. Early intervention can help a child with Down syndrome achieve developmental skills and build muscle tone and coordination. It can also give extra stimulation and encouragement to help the child achieve his or her full potential in life. Many children with Down syndrome go on to hold jobs and live independently well into middle age and beyond.

Treating Orthopaedic Problems

Early diagnosis and treatment is also important for managing orthopaedic problems in children with Down syndrome. Some children may need splints or other devices for physical activity. Sometimes your doctor may refer you to a pediatric orthopaedist for specialized help or surgery.

Neck Instability

In some people with Down syndrome, the upper part of the spine (cervical) is abnormal under the base of the skull. Muscles are weak and ligaments may be looser than they should be. Potentially, this can cause bones (vertebrae) in the neck to press on the spinal cord, leading to an inability to coordinate muscle movement and weakness. You should visit your doctor or specialist if a child with Down syndrome shows progressive changes such as:

  • Weakness, clumsiness and tripping
  • Walking with stiff legs
  • Having a stiff neck, neck pain and headaches

The doctor may recommend taking X-rays of your child's neck to look for joint laxity. In some cases, a child may be kept out of contact sports or other activities that put stress on the neck, such as high jumping, diving, gymnastics and using a trampoline.

Staying Active

For a number of reasons, children with Down syndrome may be less physically active; this can lead to weight gain and other problems. Encourage your child to stay active and eat a healthy diet as he or she grows into the teen years. Your doctor can help develop a well-rounded exercise routine, including aerobic activity, strength training and stretching exercises.

Surgical Treatment Options

Occasionally, a child with Down syndrome may need surgery to hold the bones in the neck together (spinal fusion).

If you or your child has Down syndrome and is experiencing musculosckeletal problems, please see our pediatric orthopedic specialists to find out if treatment is indicated. Book an appointment online, or call us at (561) 967-4400 to let us help you set up your appointment.