Birth Injuries and Cerebral Palsy

Medical malpractice and treatment mistakes before and during childbirth can cause babies to be born with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is one of the most serious health problems caused by birth injuries and medical malpractice during labor or childbirth. The condition is thought to be caused by a lack of oxygen to the infant's brain during child birth. But cerebral palsy has a lifelong impact on affected babies and their families. This article explains what cerebral palsy is, how it is caused, and common symptoms of cerebral palsy. (For more in-depth information on birth-related injuries to babies and mothers, check out Nolo's article Birth-Related Medical Malpractice.)

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a medical term for a number of neurological disorders that hinder body movement and muscle coordination. Although a variety of factors can cause cerebral palsy, in the context of birth injuries and medical malpractice, cerebral palsy cases often result from an insufficient amount of oxygen reaching an infant's brain during labor or birth.

Whether or not it is caused by medical malpractice, most children who have cerebral palsy are born with it, although a proper diagnosis may not be made for a few years. Cerebral palsy is a "non-progressive" health condition, meaning that, as debilitating and serious as it may be at its outset, it won't get worse over time. Cerebral palsy occurs in approximately two to four out of every 1,000 births in the United States and Europe, according to data from the Mayo Clinic.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Most children who have cerebral palsy have had it since birth, often due to a lack of oxygen to the brain (called hypoxia) or to the body (asphyxia), premature delivery, or birth trauma -- sometimes because of medical malpractice and delivery mistakes during labor or child birth. But keep in mind that even when a child is born with cerebral palsy, that doesn't automatically mean that medical malpractice occurred. In many cases, hospitals, doctors, and other medical professionals act with the utmost care and responsibility when providing prenatal care and delivering a baby, and things still go wrong. But when medical malpractice is linked to a child's development of cerebral palsy, common causes include:

  • failure to detect and/or properly treat infections (like meningitis) in the mother during pregnancy
  • failure to appropriately monitor fetal heart rate before and during labor and birth
  • failure to detect a prolapsed umbilical cord
  • failure to plan and schedule a cesarean section procedure when a baby is too large to safely pass through the birth canal
  • delay in performing (or failure to perform) a medically necessary cesarean section procedure, and
  • negligence and unreasonable mistakes in using instruments like vacuum and forceps in performing a delivery.

For more information about medical malpractice cases in general -- including common kinds of treatment errors and liability issues -- check out Nolo's Medical Malpractice section.

Types of Cerebral Palsy

Neurological disorders in a number of different forms affecting motor abilities are characterized as cerebral palsy. Here are three of the most common types:

Spastic cerebral palsy. Accounting for about 80% of all cerebral palsy cases, spastic cerebral palsy is characterized by stiffness and difficulty moving, due to tightness in one or more muscle groups. Patients with this type of cerebral palsy have a hard time moving from one position to another and have difficulty holding onto and letting go of objects.

Athetoid cerebral palsy. About 10% of cerebral palsy cases are of this type. Athetoid cerebral palsy is typified by involuntary movement, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, inability to maintain posture, and low muscle tone.

Ataxic cerebral palsy. Also accounting for about 10% of cerebral palsy cases, symptoms of ataxic cerebral palsy include depth perception problems, distorted sense of balance, tremors, and difficulty with coordinated muscle movements.

Birth Injuries and Cerebral Palsy -- Getting Help

Medical malpractice cases that stem from birth injuries and delivery mistakes are pretty complex from both a legal and medical standpoint -- usually involving highly technical treatment issues and complicated questions of liability. If you are looking for assistance with a potential lawsuit involving cerebral palsy caused by medical malpractice, use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find and speak with an experienced attorney in your area. And to understand what to expect and how to prepare for every step in the lawsuit process, you may want to get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).

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