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Causes of Cerebral Palsy

A small portion of cerebral palsy cases are caused by mistakes during birth. For those affected by medical negligence, substantial help may be available from a malpractice claim.

Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition that can affect muscle movement, bodily control and the ability to maintain position. It occurs in children and adults, although it is usually diagnosed at a young age. CP is currently the most common cause of juvenile disability in this country.

The root cause of cerebral palsy is brain impairment to the sections that regulate movement. In 4 out of 5 cases, this is denoted by physiological problems in brain white matter. Unfortunately, doctors have yet to find a way to reverse this damage.

A variety of causes and risk factors can contribute to the brain damage causing cerebral palsy, although these are varied among the different types of the condition.

Congenital v. Acquired Cerebral Palsy Causes

Cerebral palsy may be classified as either congenital or acquired, depending on when the brain damage took place.

Congenital CP signifies brain damage that occurred during pregnancy or in the process of delivery. This represents the majority of cases, around 75-85%.

Acquired CP is the term used for brain damage that occurs after birth. Newborn infants are especially prone to this from infections and head trauma in the first several months. This type of cerebral palsy is less common, usually only present in 15-25% of cases.

Cerebral Palsy Risk Factors

Health experts have identified certain risk factors that are more likely to be associated with children diagnosed with CP. While these may not be direct causes of cerebral palsy, mothers are cautioned about their presence and they often influence the direction of prenatal care. 

Examples of these cerebral palsy risk factors include:

  • Mother’s health – Women who suffer from seizures, thyroid problems or have intellectual impairment have a greater chance of giving birth to a child with cerebral palsy.
  • Low birth weight – infants born weighing less than normal have been found to have a higher risk of cerebral palsy. This is more common in babies weighing less than 3 pounds, 6 ounces.
  • Premature birth – Nearly half of all infants who are diagnosed with cerebral palsy were born prior to full term, or the 37th week. Reports show the risk increases for those delivered prior to the 32nd week.
  • Multiple births – Children born as twins or triplets stand a greater chance of developing cerebral palsy, with the risk increasing if one sibling passes away shortly before or after delivery. Multiple births also increase the chances of premature birth and low birth weight.
  • Fertility treatments – Women using fertility treatments have a greater chance of giving birth to infants with CP, a factor that may be attributed to higher risks of low birth weight, premature birth and multiple births.
  • Inheritance – affecting only around 2% of cerebral palsy cases, experts have identified certain enzymes like glutamate decarboxylase-1 that may be passed from parents to a child. However, since most cases are autosomal recessive, meaning both parents must carry the disorder to affect the child, this is extremely rare.
  • Low Apgar score – Studies have related a low Apgar score at birth to a greater chance that a child will be diagnosed with cerebral palsy

Causes Before Birth

Certain conditions have been identified as causes of cerebral palsy brain damage that may affect the mother, fetus, or both during pregnancy. These may occur anytime from the first trimester through the time of birth.

Typically, these issues can be prevented with adequate prenatal care, avoidance of risks and regular fetal monitoring. Some of the pre-birth causes include:

  • Radiation exposure
  • Infection to the fetus or mother during pregnancy - can increase inflammation in the baby’s brain, possibly causing damage.
  • Fever in the mother during pregnancy - also can cause brain inflammation in the fetus.
  • Maternal viruses during pregnancy including measles and chickenpox may cause inflammation
  • Oxygen deprivation to the fetus due to compressed cord or placenta
  • Severe Jaundice – may cause a rapid breakdown of red blood cells in the fetus if left untreated.
  • Low blood sugar

Causes During Birth

Historically thought to be the most common causes of cerebral palsy, reports now indicate that birth complications only account for a small percentage of cases. However, these factors are also considered to be avoidable with adequate birth procedures and protocols.

Examples of birth complications that may increase the risk of a child developing cerebral palsy brain damage include:

  • Infection to the fetus
  • Placenta detachment
  • Oxygen deprivation
  • Ruptured uterus
  • Trauma during labor or delivery
  • Delayed birth
  • Umbilical cord compression
  • Emergency Caesarean section
  • Breathing meconium into the lungs
  • Instruments used during delivery

Causes After Birth

Among the least common causes of cerebral palsy are those that occur after birth. These factors, which result in acquired CP, are often linked to accidents caused by others or the susceptibility of infants to danger.

Because parents must accept the disability of a previously-healthy child, these cerebral palsy causes are also among the most devastating.

Some factors that may cause brain damage after birth include:

  • Physical brain injury from trauma
  • Infections of the brain such as meningitis or encephalitis during infancy
  • Exposure to toxic substances
  • Lead poisoning
  • Shaken baby syndrome
  • Accidents or injuries that prevent blood flow to the brain such as heart defects, sickle cell disease, blood clot, stroke or brain hemorrhage
  • Oxygen deprivation from choking, poisoning or near drowning

Medical Negligence and Provider Liability

Brain damage caused during pregnancy or as a result of birth complications can often be traced to mistakes made by medical professionals. Although these represent a small part of the new cases each year, they are also the most difficult for parents since they may have been avoided.

Fortunately, the legal system provides recourse for those injured as a result of the negligence, inaction or mistakes made by healthcare professionals. In many cases, this liability falls to the healthcare facility where the injury occurred, or the insurance carrier for the provider.

If a healthcare provider is found liable for your child’s brain injury, they may be forced to provide compensation to cover past and future medical care, attendant care, education, therapy, rehabilitation, transportation, accessible facilities, lost earnings and pain and suffering.

Each state has separate and distinct laws governing medical injury lawsuits, therefore it is important to seek the advice of a lawyer before deciding whether or not to pursue a case.

While many parents may suspect something out of the ordinary with their child’s pregnancy or birth, the true cause of cerebral palsy may not be apparent until a lawyer performs a detailed investigation of medical records.

Fortunately, legal help is available for those affected. With a simple consultation, a lawyer can often determine if you should investigate your child’s case further. Regardless of whether you pursue a lawsuit, there is no cost unless you receive compensation.

For those with questions about their legal rights, the CP Help Center works only with lawyers that specialize in cerebral palsy lawsuits.

Contact us today for more information on the causes, treatment options and research related to cerebral palsy, or to speak with a lawyer. We are available 24 hours a day to help.