Botox for Babies

A highly poisonous neurotoxin with amazing medical benefits, Botox is also helping save the lives of newborns with certain birth defects, sparing tiny patients risky surgery. 

Botox is revolutionizing the care of kids with cerebral palsy and adults with certain complications of stroke, spinal cord injury, or brain trauma. While Botox doesn’t cure these disorders, it can deliver remarkably effective short-term symptomatic relief, experts report. 

“It’s just like with many other medications that are actually poisons – it’s how we use them and where we use them that make the difference,” Dr. William Klava of Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, ND told Dr. Klava has given Botox injections to babies as young as two months—and adults as old as 90—to combat such cerebral palsy symptoms as spastic movements and rigid muscles.

Botulinum toxin, better known as Botox, is a protein produced by the bacterium that’s the culprit in often fatal food poisoning called botulism. It causes muscle paralysis by blocking a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, that signals muscles to move. Here’s a look at the latest wrinkles in treating serious medical conditions.

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A Poison That Helps Babies Breathe

One of Botox’s most amazing medical uses is treating babies with CHARGE syndrome, a rare cluster of potentially life-threatening birth defects that can affect the heart, nerves, and other organs. The syndrome also causes overactive salivary glands, leading to fluid buildup in the lungs that leaves babies unable to breath on their own. 

Typically, this problem is treated with tracheotomy surgery, putting babies at risk for a wide range of complications. In a world-first experimental treatment, doctors injecting tiny amounts of Botox into a two-month-old baby’s salivary glands to reduce secretions, a procedure described in Archives of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery in 2008.

The injections were repeated every four to six months for a year and a half, until the little boy’s overactive glands shrank and stopped producing excessive saliva. Botox has proved so effective at treating CHARGE syndrome symptoms that specialists at Montreal Children’s Hospital have now given more than 1,000 shots to little kids, including 12 newborns, and report no major side effects from the treatment.

Reducing Kids’ Cerebral Palsy Symptoms

Up to 2 million American kids have cerebral palsy (CP), the leading childhood motor disorder. Forty-one percent of these children are limited in their ability to play, crawl, or walk and 31 percent need wheelchairs or other mobility aids, reports the CDC. Doctors at a number of children’s hospitals and rehab centers are using Botox injections to reduce painful muscle spasms and stiffness.

Brad Gandy has been getting the injections since he was 3 years old to make him more comfortable in his wheelchair, reports "It has been the very best thing for us," says his mom, Sandra. "His legs would be extremely tight, and then after he would have the shot, after about two or three weeks, then they were much more relaxed."

According to Dr. Klava, Botox can be used in almost any muscle, and reduces jerky movements of the arms and legs, and sudden contractions and stiffness of muscles in kids and adults with CP. The results usually last four to six months.

Strokes and Spinal Cord Injuries

It may seem counterintuitive to use a neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles to treat people who are already disabled by strokes, spinal cord injuries, or traumatic brain injuries. Yet doctors at Emory University and other centers report that Botox can have surprising benefits, particularly for spastic paralysis—stiffness and lack of movement resulting from injuries to the spine or brain—or spasticity.

About a million Americans are affected by chronic spasticity. Stroke is the most common cause; others include a spinal cord or brain injury, multiple sclerosis, or CP. Botox injections help loosen the affected muscles, John Lin, M.D., assistant professor of physical and rehabilitation medicine, Emory University School of Medicine reported in a news statement.

"Day after day, we see how well these injections are working for spasticity control," says Dr. Lin. "Because patients can regain mobility and use of their limbs following an injury or set-back, the injections give an aspect of independence to the patient, as well as comfort and care."

Other Surprising Uses of Botox

More than 5 million Americans get Botox injections each year. Along with fighting forehead furrows, the neurotoxin is also FDA approved for crossed eyes, excessive sweating, and migraine headaches, along with a movement disorder called cervical dystonia, reports Dr. Peter Fodor, clinical professor of plastic surgery at UCLA.

Another medical and cosmetic use is treating bruxism (teeth grinding). “Many people don’t know that grinding your teeth can actually change the shape of your face—causing your jaw to be more square and giving you an older look,” says Dr. Fodor. Botox injections both alleviate grinding that wears down teeth and also loosens jaw muscles, giving the face a more youthful, oval appearance.

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