What Causes Cerebral Palsy?

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by abnormal development of the brain, which can occur during the early stages of a child’s life. Abnormal development can occur after sustaining brain damage through illness or injuries. Read on to discover the common causes of cerebral palsy.

Damage to the Brain’s White Matter

The brain’s white matter transmits signals around the brain and to the rest of the body. If the brain’s gray matter is the body’s computer, the white matter is its cables. The medical term for damage to the white matter is periventricular leukomalacia, or PVL for short. PVL looks like tiny holes in the white matter. These holes make transmitting clear signals difficult.

PVL usually occurs between a baby’s 26th and 34th week of gestation, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. During this time, the developing white matter is vulnerable to injuries. That’s why premature babies are at greatest risk, according to the Child Neurology Foundation.

Babies’ brains are most vulnerable to damage during delivery. Delivery tools, such as forceps and vacuum extractors, and health professionals delaying treatment during high-risk births can increase the chance of damage.

Damage that occurs after birth can also cause cerebral palsy. Any trauma occurring in a child’s first few years of life, when the brain undergoes rapid development, can cause this damage. Common causes of damage to the brain’s white matter after birth include falls and trauma from car accidents.

Damage to the Brain’s Gray Matter

The brain’s gray matter is also important because it stores the information the body needs to function normally. Gray matter helps us hear, see, speak, move, remember, feel, and regulate our emotions and make decisions. Damage to the gray matter can impact our ability to do all these things and may cause cerebral palsy.

Jaundice is the most common condition linked to gray matter damage that causes cerebral palsy. Jaundice occurs when too much bilirubin, a yellow pigment present in red blood cells, builds up in the body. It’s a common condition in newborns, characterized by yellowed skin and eyes. Normally it resolves on its own when the newborn’s liver develops enough to process the bilirubin, and through medical treatment.

However, jaundice left untreated can turn into kernicterus, a type of brain damage caused by a build-up of bilirubin. Bilirubin is toxic to the brain’s delicate gray matter cells. The damage it causes can trigger cerebral palsy.

Abnormal Brain Development

Sometimes a fetus’s brain does not develop as you might expect. Malformations can interfere with the way the brain normally transmits signals. The medical name for this abnormal development is cerebral dysgenesis. Cerebral dysgenesis can occur for several reasons, including:

  • Genetic mutations
  • Maternal infections
  • Maternal fever
  • Trauma in the womb, such as from a mother’s fall or car accident

Brain Bleeds

Brain bleeds occur when the brain’s blood vessels break or become blocked. The medical name for bleeding in the brain is intracranial hemorrhage. Fetal strokes usually trigger brain bleeds that could cause cerebral palsy. Several events can cause fetal strokes, including:

  • Placental blood clots blocking blood flow to the brain
  • Malformed or weak blood vessels in the brain
  • Blood-clotting abnormalities

Maternal high blood pressure and infections, especially from pelvic inflammatory disease, are also risk factors for fetal stroke.

Fetal stroke is not the only event that can cause brain bleeding and trigger cerebral palsy. A child may also develop a brain bleed due to one of the following conditions:

  • Blood clotting problems
  • Malformed blood vessels
  • Heart conditions
  • Sickle cell disease

Lack of Oxygen to the Brain

Like the rest of the body, the brain needs oxygen to work effectively. If it is starved of oxygen for a significant period of time, brain damage can occur. The medical term for a lack of oxygen is asphyxia, and the brain damage infants sustain because of asphyxia to the brain is called hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, or HIE for short. HIE damages tissue in parts of the brain including the cerebral motor cortex, the part of the brain concerned with movement. A variety of neonatal events and factors can trigger HIE, including:

  • Normal labor and delivery, especially if the head is damaged or the umbilical cord compromises oxygen supply
  • Maternal low blood pressure
  • The placenta detaching (abruption)
  • The uterus rupturing

Some infections can also interrupt the healthy flow of oxygen to a baby or child’s brain after birth. Encephalitis and meningitis are two common infections linked to cerebral palsy.

In many cases, doctors are unsure which of these problems caused their patients’ cerebral palsy. This can be very frustrating for families, and it’s also expensive to pay for continual care for a child with cerebral palsy. However, doctors have a responsibility to care for you and your child to the best of their abilities. If you believe your child’s cerebral palsy developed due to medical negligence, you may have a case for compensation.

Contact the Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC for help with your case. Our team has years of experience as well as the legal and medical expertise to help you seek the compensation you may be entitled to.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

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