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How Does Cerebral Palsy Happen?


As the most common motor disability among children, cerebral palsy is widely known but not widely understood. Even today, researchers aren’t fully sure of what factors directly cause each case of cerebral palsy. However, one thing that is known to cause cerebral palsy in some infants is poor medical care. If, during labor, babies do not get enough oxygen or are not protected from some of the forces of labor, cerebral palsy can be the result. Many cases of cerebral palsy are not caused by bad medical care, but some are--and rarely do the doctors and nurses involved in the care admit their mistakes to the parents.

To determine the specific cause of your child’s diagnosis, you would need hospital administration and medical care experts to review your case. Our law firm can lead the investigation with our team.

The Risk Factors for Cerebral Palsy

The root cause of cerebral palsy is abnormal development of the brain or damage to the brain that affects a child's mobility or muscle control. Why some brain injury leads to cerebral palsy and others don't is still a subject of study. CP is often the result of either brain damage to the basal ganglia or the cerebellum, which affect both voluntary and autonomic motor controls. In some CP cases, developmental issues that create a lack of protective membranes for the nerves are also a risk factor. Poor myelination inhibits healthy transmission of nerve signals—making mobility difficult later.

Because there are several different ways a brain could develop or become damaged in utero or from a birth injury, there is no cause or group of causes that makes cerebral palsy easy to prevent. In fact, cerebral palsy can develop up to a year after a child is born, which is when their brain is still developing. However, because we know that brain damage during development is what causes CP, we can identify common risk factors.

Cerebral palsy risk factors include:

  • Low weight at birth
  • Premature birth
  • Being a twin, triplet, or part of a multiple birth
  • Conception with ART infertility treatments
  • Maternal infections during pregnancy
  • Maternal thyroid disorder
  • Maternal seizures
  • Difficult or complicated births
  • Kernicterus (after jaundice)
  • Meningitis within 28 days of birth
  • Head injuries during or immediately after birth
  • Umbilical cord issues

Among CP cases in the United States, the most common cerebral palsy cases were from genetic or environmental factors (70 percent). However, 20 percent of cerebral palsy cases (or 1 in 5) were caused by injury or brain damage during birth. The rarest cause of CP was due to brain damage after birth, also known as acquired CP. Acquired CP is far more common in nations with less access to medical care and greater need for treatment of infections like meningitis or encephalitis.

As you can see, there are wide array of potential cerebral palsy causes. That's why it's vital for doctors to mitigate all of these risks in preparing for birth; many of these risk factors are visible or predictable weeks ahead of time. In situations where risk factors appear suddenly (i.e. birth complications), doctors and nurses still have the training and equipment to prevent brain damage or loss of oxygen.

Genetic Mutations & Infections During Pregnancy

Genetic predisposition to cerebral palsy is possible—although scientists are still unsure about how genetics affects who develops CP. Only 1 percent of children with CP have a sibling with it, and even among twins, both children having CP only occurs in 10 percent of cases. Despite that, genetic factors are present often enough to be a risk factor, albeit a rare one.

Maternal health is a better predictor of CP. When a baby develops cerebral palsy from factors prior to birth, maternal infection is a far stronger risk factor. Rubella, chicken pox, bacterial infections, and pelvic infections are conditions with strong associations with CP. Other factors of the mother’s health, like thyroid, intellectual disabilities, or seizures, have strong ties as well. However, even a simple fever from the flu can cause serious issues for a fetus’ health.

Three of the risk factors associated with cerebral palsy are multiple births, low birth weight, and premature births—events which are far more likely with the use of Assisted Reproductive Technology, or ART fertilization. As a result, it’s a risk factor on its own.

Risk Factors at Birth

Risk factors present at birth are rooted in the effects of difficult births. For example, excessive jaundice, detachment of the placenta, uterine rupture, breech presentation, or umbilical cord entanglement all create the brain damage necessary for cerebral palsy. Anything that robs an infant of oxygen or blood flow to the brain could lead to CP.

Can Cerebral Palsy Be Cured?

CP can neither be cured nor reversed—however, it can be treated. Occupational therapy, physical rehabilitation, and speech therapy can all improve your child’s prognosis considerably. Half of all children with CP can walk independently, and 60% of children with CP don’t have an intellectual disability.

The good news is that cerebral palsy is not progressive, meaning the damage never gets worse.

Can CP Be Prevented?

Not in the same way that a cold or a flu can be prevented. Because the specific cause isn’t known, there is no specific prevention method. Instead, there are two broad ways that CP can be prevented: the first way is through general health. Ensuring that you stay up-to-date on chicken pox and rubella vaccinations is vital, particularly before you get pregnant. Flu vaccinations, however, are not associated with any harm to mothers or infants during pregnancy.

Take care to always address illness (even minor ones), and see your doctor for prenatal care throughout your pregnancy. If you have a different blood type from your baby (increasing the risk of jaundice or kernicterus), your doctor should help you mitigate the risk with medication. The best thing you can do is be as healthy as possible.

Is Cerebral Palsy Hereditary?

There is some debate about whether cerebral palsy is genetic or hereditary. The question seems to be, "If a relative has cerebral palsy, are my kids at risk? Did I pass along bad genes?" The short answer is no. Cerebral palsy is the result of, in simple terms, a brain injury that occurs anytime from pregnancy to within a year of a child's birth. You are no more likely to pass along a brain injury genetically than you are a sprained ankle or broken tooth.

Here's where there is some debate: researchers believe that genes do play a role in how susceptible we are to injury. One unborn child might have genetics that allow them to recover from a brain injury. Another child with different genetics might have a brain injury that turns into cerebral palsy. In practical terms, does that mean cerebral palsy is hereditary? No. It simply means that some children may be more susceptible to it, just as some children are more likely to sprain an ankle.

Hold Medical Negligence Accountable & Prevent Birth Injuries

The second way to prevent cerebral palsy is to fight to minimize medical mistakes that lead to cerebral palsy. Nurses and obstetricians are trained to mitigate the effects of breech births, shoulder dystocia, or fetal asphyxiation. Failing to act when your child lacks oxygen is what leads to lasting brain damage—when medical mistakes create the risk factors for cerebral palsy, hospitals need to be held accountable for poor practices.

If your child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, it’s vital to understand their legal and financial options to provide for their needs. Get answers about the legal options from the Miami birth injury lawyers at Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain, P.A.—call (305) 770-6335 or use our short online form to schedule a free review of your case.