Understanding How Cerebral Palsy Occurs

Cerebral palsy risk factors include birth defects and poor growth in the womb

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D. Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Children with cerebral palsy can live full lives and often do not experience any intellectual disability. Researchers are still eager, however, to understand the risk factors for this movement disorder.

A recent study shed some more light on what factors may contribute most to developing cerebral palsy.

The researchers found that poor growth in the womb and birth defects played the biggest part in a child's risk of having cerebral palsy.

By comparison, suffocation events during birth and inflammation played a lesser role.

"Attend all prenatal appointments."

The study, led by Sarah McIntyre, MPS, of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the University of Sydney, looked for specific risk factors for cerebral palsy or a baby's death during birth.

The researchers looked for all cases of cerebral palsy or babies who died during birth in Western Australia from 1980 through 1995. All the babies were born at or after 35 weeks of pregnancy.

The researchers identified 494 newborns with cerebral palsy, 100 babies who died during birth and 73 stillbirths.

Cerebral palsy refers to a group of neurological disorders that can cause problems with movement.

The researchers defined cerebral palsy as "...a disorder of movement, posture or both affecting activities of daily living resulting from non-progressive lesions or abnormalities of the developing brain."

Then the researchers identified 508 healthy newborns who were used as a comparison group.

The researchers calculated how frequently these four different factors occurred among the babies:

  • any birth events that could have caused suffocation (such as an umbilical cord wrapped around the neck)
  • fetal growth restriction (the poor growth of a baby in the womb)
  • inflammation (irritation of body tissues in response to something harmful; signs of an infection)
  • birth defects that were identified before a child was 6 years old

The researchers found that the odds were approximately twice as high for a baby to have cerebral palsy if inflammation or a suffocation event had occurred than if it hadn't.

However, in looking at all the risk factors, the researchers found that suffocation events and inflammation were not as significant contributors to cerebral palsy as first thought.

Overall, only 12.6 percent of the babies with cerebral palsy experienced a suffocation event, inflammation or both.

The greater risk of suffocation events appeared to be stillbirth; suffocation events occurred in 34 percent of all stillbirths.

The results revealed that fetal growth restriction and birth defects appeared to be bigger contributions to cerebral palsy and death during childbirth than suffocation events or inflammation.

Growth restriction increased the risk for cerebral palsy, death during birth and stillbirth, and the frequency of birth defects was much lower among the healthy comparison infants compared to the other groups.

While only 5.5 percent of the newborns in the healthy comparison group had birth defects, 60 percent of the babies who died during birth had birth defects.

Meanwhile, more than half the babies who had cerebral palsy — but did not experience brain damage from too little oxygen to the brain — had birth defects.

Overall, 48.6 percent of the children with cerebral palsy had growth restriction, a birth defect or both.

These findings make it clearer which factors actually pose a greater risk to a child for developing cerebral palsy or not surviving birth.

This study was published September 9 in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

The research was funded by the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Macquarie Group Foundation.

Review Date: 
September 10, 2013
Last Updated:
September 11, 2013