Napa Suit Therapy (Intensive Suit Therapy) is a complementary physical therapy used to improve motor skills of children with cerebral palsy and other neurological impairments. The original therapy suit was developed in the 1960s for astronauts in the Soviet space program to help prevent muscular atrophy and osteopenia (bone loss) that occurs when living without gravity. In the early 1990s, former Soviet researchers introduced and tested a modified version of the original space suit as physical therapy device for children.
In the last decade, a variety of therapy suits, all with similar designs, have been introduced worldwide with various intensive physical therapy protocols. The Adeli Suit, TheraSuit, NeuroSuit and Pedia Suit are names of some the most widely available therapy suits. These form-fitting segmented garments are attached with straps and strong elastic cords that can both support the body and create resistance to movements. Adjustments are made by trained therapists to generate tension on major muscle groups and put pressure on joints to correct muscle alignment, improve proprioception, strengthen muscles, and enhance sensory awareness.
Through intensive physical therapy with muscular realignment and support provided by the therapy suit, a child’s brain may be able to retrain to coordinate muscles properly. Intensive suit therapy is thought to create new neural pathways to allow motor tasks to be achieved, enhance muscle tone, decrease spasticity and muscle spasms, increase spatial awareness, increase bone density, and generally improve motor skills. Therapy sessions last from two to four hours each day for at least three weeks. During therapy sessions, a child performs specific exercises and functional activities that help the brain re-educate itself.
Intensive suit therapy is used to treat a wide-range of neurological disorders that exhibit a lack of motor control, including traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, autism spectrum disorders, and developmental delays. However, it is not recommended for children with uncontrolled seizure disorders, heart conditions, high blood pressure, kidney problems, diabetes, scoliosis, or hip subluxation. Intensive suit therapy can be considered for children as young as 2 years old. Though relatively few in number, therapy centers are located throughout the United States.
Many positive case studies using therapy suits are available, but proving the efficacy of intensive suit therapy requires further research. Though promising, only a handle-full of randomized controlled trials exist. Additional research is needed to test its effectiveness versus other forms of physical therapy. The most promising treatments combine intensive suit therapy with traditional physical therapy, with children showing significant motor improvements over the course of a few weeks.