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Cerebral palsy and medical malpractice: what you should know

An estimated 746,000 adults and children suffer from cerebral palsy, and about 8,000 infants are diagnosed with it each year. It is an incurable disorder, and those diagnosed with it may have difficulty standing, balancing, moving, breathing, swallowing, communicating, sleeping, and even learning. What is cerebral palsy? And how is it related to medical malpractice?

What is cerebral palsy?

The word “cerebral” refers to the brain, and “palsy” indicates weakness or a muscle problem. Cerebral palsy is group of neurological disorders – there are three main types – that impede muscle coordination and body movement. The most common form, affecting 80 percent of those who suffer from cerebral palsy, is called spastic palsy. Symptoms include difficulty swallowing, speaking, and moving; vision or hearing problems; seizures, problems with bowel and bladder control; difficulty breathing; and learning disabilities.

Most people with cerebral palsy are born with it – called congenital CP – while in some people it starts after birth, and is called acquired CP. While doctors are not sure what causes CP in every case, some factors are bleeding in the brain while still in the womb, lack of blood flow to vital organs, seizures at or shortly after birth, and genetic factors.

But another cause of cerebral palsy is mistakes made by medical personnel during pregnancy and childbirth resulting in birth injuries.

When medical malpractice leads to cerebral palsy

While not all cases of cerebral palsy can be attributed to medical malpractice, negligence along with the conduct and actions of doctors during pregnancy and childbirth account for a significant number of those who suffer from it; some estimates place the number as high as 20 percent. Common mistakes by medical personnel that lead to cerebral palsy include:

  • Head trauma caused by vacuum extractors or forceps used during delivery
  • Failure to identify a prolapsed umbilical cord, either before or during delivery. Asphyxiation may lead to brain damage in the baby.
  • Failure to properly monitor the baby’s heart rate during delivery
  • Delaying too long to perform a caesarean section, leading to oxygen deprivation
  • Anesthesia used during a medical procedure during pregnancy
  • Inappropriate medication prescribed during pregnancy
  • Failure to detect or properly treat infections in the mother during pregnancy. If left undiagnosed or untreated, infections can damage the unborn baby’s brain or other vital organs.

What are the symptoms?

How can you tell if your baby has cerebral palsy? Not all symptoms are visible immediately after childbirth; some may manifest themselves later. Additionally, since cerebral palsy is a complex disorder, diagnosing it is not always easy; multiple tests over an extended period are necessary. Symptoms of cerebral palsy in infants include:

  • Seizures during the first 48 hours of life
  • Low muscle tone – the baby feels “floppy” and is unable to hold its head up. Other babies have stiff, tight muscles.
  • Muscle spasms
  • Poor muscle control
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Cannot sit up or roll over at six months
  • The baby favors one side over another

If cerebral palsy is caused at birth, it does not become “worse” as the baby grows older. However, impaired development leads to additional symptoms in toddlers, such as not walking by 12-18 months and not speaking simple sentences by 24 months.

Compensation is possible

Cerebral palsy is a disorder that brings challenges and difficulties to the sufferer for the rest of his/her life. Hospitals and medical personnel can be held legally responsible – and compensation made – if negligence or mistakes made during pregnancy or childbirth are proven to be the cause.