Is Cerebral Palsy a Birth Defect or a Birth Injury?

When parents welcome a baby in the world, they have dreams of watching their child grow and become productive adults. A world of opportunity is seemingly at their fingertips.

Concern and confusion set in when their once apparently normal newborn doesn’t develop as expected. They’re unable to lift their heads, their legs and arms are overly stiff, and they suffer seizures. Based on these and other symptoms, the pediatrician may diagnose the child with cerebral palsy (CP), usually between 10 and 12 months of age. Depending on other circumstances, diagnosis can happen shortly after birth or even at the toddler stage.

In this blog, we will explain how cerebral palsy can be a birth defect or birth injury. When it is a birth injury, you may have a medical malpractice case.

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

CP is caused by abnormal brain development or damage that affects a person’s ability to control their muscles. That same original trauma can also damage the areas of the brain that govern cognitive development. About half of all CP cases include intellectual impairment. Poor hearing and vision, communication difficulties, emotional and behavioral challenges, autism, and short attention spans can accompany the physical aspects of CP.

There are four types of cerebral palsy:

  • Spastic. This is the most common form of CP. Increased muscle tone causes stiffness which makes for awkward movements. Spastic diplegia affects mainly the legs; spastic hemiplegia affects one side of the body and usually the arm more than the leg; spastic quadriplegia affects all four limbs, the torso, and face.
  • Dyskinetic. In these cases, people with CP have difficulty controlling hands, feet, arms, and legs. Sitting and standing are challenging. If their face and tongue are affected, it can be hard to talk or swallow.
  • Ataxic. This type of CP affects balance and coordination. Quick movements or those that require fine motor skills like writing are particularly difficult.
  • Mixed. Sometimes a child can show symptoms of more than one type of CP because damage to the brain is not limited to one area.

How Common Is Cerebral Palsy?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 345 children has been identified with CP. More than 40% of children with CP also have epilepsy. CP is the most common motor disability in childhood.

What Causes CP?

Cerebral palsy is caused by abnormal brain development or damage that can happen before or during birth. In more rare cases, a brain infection or serious head injury can cause CP in a baby more than 1 month old. It is rare for CP to be related to a genetic disorder.

Many CP cases are related to one of the following:

  • Being born prematurely
  • Being born a twin or other multiple birth
  • Having a mother who had an infection during pregnancy
  • Having complications during birth
  • Having kernicterus (brain damage caused by untreated newborn jaundice)

Cerebral palsy cannot always be prevented. There are circumstances during pregnancy or birth that are beyond anyone’s control. In these cases, CP is no one’s fault.

In other circumstances, mistakes made by medical professionals can lead to a birth injury causing CP.

A timely C-section after complications arise during labor and delivery is crucial to avoid oxygen deprivation. If a doctor delays performing a C-section, damage to the baby's brain can result in cerebral palsy. Another example is caused by external trauma to the baby’s head. The baby can have difficulty passing through the birth canal, causing the doctors to use devices such as obstetrical forceps or vacuum extractors. Using these devices requires a high level of skill because they can easily cause an excessive level of force on the baby's head and cause internal damage.

Those scenarios are two examples of when CP can be grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit.

What Are the Signs of CP?

Parents and doctors watch for milestones that a child should reach at certain ages to assess whether they are developing appropriately. Rolling over, sitting up, standing, and walking are among the hallmark events that define development.

Some of the signs alerting parents and doctors to possible CP are:

  • Ages 3 to 6 months. The baby is unable to hold up their head; the baby may feel stiff or floppy; they overextend their back and neck when cradled; and their legs stiffen and cross when picked up.
  • Ages 6 to 10 months. The baby doesn’t roll over; they cannot bring their hands together; reaches out with one hand while keeping the other fisted; and has difficulty bringing their hands to their mouth.
  • 10 months and older. The child crawls in a lopsided manner, pushing off with one hand and leg while dragging the other side; and scoots on their buttocks or hops on their knees instead of crawling on all fours.

Are There Treatments for Cerebral Palsy?

CP is fortunately not a progressive condition, but once brain damage has occurred, it cannot be reversed. Early intervention is critical and may significantly improve a child’s prognosis. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides for services for babies, toddlers, and school-aged children. Part C of IDEA serves children from birth to 36 months, while Part B is for children 3 to 21 years old and is provided by the public school district. Private treatments and therapies may also be beneficial.

CP cannot be cured. Treatment is focused on managing the symptoms and helping to improve their quality of life. Treatments often include physical, occupational, and speech therapies. Medications can help lessen seizures and muscle spasms. Surgical interventions can help reduce excessive muscle tone by lengthening muscles and tendons. Wearable medical devices and massages can also be beneficial.

Advocates for Children with CP

Attorney David Kates fights for those who have been injured because of another’s carelessness and improper care. He understands both the emotional and financial toll on a child with CP as well as the entire family. Medical costs for children with CP and intellectual disability were 26 times higher than children without the conditions. The CDC estimates that the lifetime cost to care for a person with CP is about $1 million.

Financial compensation does not erase the damage, but it can help provide for advanced treatments, therapies, and other assistance so your child can live their fullest life possible.

If your child’s CP is possibly the result of medical negligence, call the Law Office of David A. Kates at (718) 866-3664 to schedule a free consultation. You can also contact us through our convenient online contact form.