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Approximately 70% of cerebral palsy cases are caused by events occurring before birth that disrupt normal brain development. Although it was widely believed that a lack of oxygen reaching the fetus during labor and delivery contributed to the majority of brain injury cases in cerebral palsy, only a small number of cases of cerebral palsy is caused by lack of oxygen. A small number of babies also develop a brain injury in the first months or years of life that can result in cerebral palsy. In many cases, the cause of brain injury in a cerebral palsy child is not known.
Brain injury to the fetus can be caused by an infection during pregnancy. Infections in the mother, including rubella, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis can cause brain injury and result in cerebral palsy. Maternal infections involving the placental membranes can contribute to brain injury and cerebral palsy in full-term as well as preterm. A recent study found that full-term babies were four times more likely to develop cerebral palsy if they were exposed to chorioamnionitis in the womb. Reproductive and urinary tract infections also may increase the risk of brain injury by preterm delivery.
If there is insufficient oxygen reaching the fetus, brain injury may also occur. The fetus may not receive sufficient oxygen if the placenta is not functioning properly or if it tears away from the wall of the uterus before delivery.
Prematurity is also a major issue with brain injury and cerebral palsy. Babies who are born prematurely and weigh less than 3 1/3 pounds are up to 30 times more likely to suffer a brain injury and develop cerebral palsy than full-term babies. Many of these tiny babies suffer from bleeding in the brain, which can cause brain injury to the delicate brain tissue.
Asphyxia (lack of oxygen) during labor and delivery is a cause of brain injury that until recently, was widely believed to be the cause of most cases of cerebral palsy during a difficult delivery. However, a report shows that less than 10 percent of the types of brain injury that can result in cerebral palsy are caused by asphyxia.
Blood diseases can cause brain injury as well. An incompatibility between the blood of the mother and her fetus, known as Rh disease, can cause severe jaundice and brain damage, resulting in cerebral palsy. Rh disease usually can be prevented by giving an Rh-negative woman an injection of a blood product called Rh immune globulin around the 28th week of pregnancy and again after the birth of an Rh-positive baby.
Brain injury caused by jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes caused by the build-up of a pigment called bilirubin in the blood, can be prevented with treatment using a special light that breaks down the bilirubin. Without treatment, severe jaundice can pose a risk of permanent brain damage resulting in athetoid cerebral palsy.
Brain injury can be caused by other birth defects such as brain malformations, genetic diseases, and other physical birth defects that all increase the risk of cerebral palsy.
A small percentage of children with cerebral palsy acquired it after birth. About 10 percent of children with cerebral palsy acquire it after birth due to a brain injury that occur during the first few years of life. The most common causes of such injuries are brain infections, such as meningitis, and head injuries.
Cerebral palsy is undoubtedly caused by brain injury, and in many cases is preventable. Prevention of a possible brain injury starts before conception and runs into the first few years of a child's life. In some cases, the doctors or medical team performing the delivery cause the brain injury. If you had difficulty during labor or think that medical malpractice may have caused your child's brain injury, you should speak with a cerebral palsy attorney who can evaluate your case.