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Cerebral Palsy and Kernicterus: What’s the Link?

understanding cerebral palsy and kernicterus

Can kernicterus cause cerebral palsy?

Kernicterus is brain damage that develops in newborns with jaundice. Luckily, it is preventable.

To help you understand the link between cerebral palsy and kernicterus, this article will go over its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What Causes Kernicterus?

untreated jaundice can cause kernicterus and cerebral palsy


Jaundice is a medical condition characterized by a yellowish tint to the skin. It’s caused by a buildup of bilirubin.

Bilirubin is a waste product of the break down of red blood cells. Normally, bilirubin is broken down in the liver or removed through our bowel movements.

However, the livers of newborns (especially when born prematurely) are still developing and may not be able to effectively break down bilirubin.

Kernicterus is brain damage caused by excess amounts of bilirubin in the brain.

Bilirubin can travel to the brain through the blood vessels. High levels of it can permanently damage brain tissue.

If left untreated, kernicterus can spread, affecting many essential body functions.

Cerebral Palsy and Kernicterus

basal ganglia kernicterus cerebral palsy

Kernicterus affects an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. Damage to the basal ganglia can also cause athetoid cerebral palsy.

Athetoid CP is characterized by involuntary fluctuations in muscle tone, which causes uncontrollable movements.

The muscles switch between very high and very low muscle tone. This can make it appear as if the individual is constantly moving.

Athetoid cerebral palsy can also affect the muscles in the mouth, interfering with essential tasks like speaking, chewing, and swallowing.

Because people with athetoid CP experience difficulties controlling their movements, they often struggle to maintain stable posture or perform tasks that require fine motor skills.

Generally, these movements worsen when the child is anxious or upset.

Symptoms of Kernicterus

newborn with kernicterus and cp


It’s essential to get immediate medical attention if you suspect your child may have jaundice to prevent kernicterus from developing.

If left untreated, kernicterus can be fatal.

Symptoms of kernicterus include:

  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Fussiness
  • Fever
  • A yellowish tint to the skin or whites of the eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Stiff or limp body movements
  • Seizures
  • Arching of the back

Many of these symptoms are also associative complications of cerebral palsy.

Treatment for Kernicterus

Baby phototherapy to prevent kernicterus


The goal of treatment is to reduce the amount of bilirubin in the newborn’s body before it affects the brain and develops into kernicterus.

Phototherapy (light therapy) is a common treatment for newborns with high levels of bilirubin.

It involves exposing the bare body to concentrated light. This increases the rate at which the body breaks down bilirubin.

Another method of treatment that can reduce the amount of bilirubin in the blood is blood transfusions.

While damage to the brain cannot be reversed, early treatment will help minimize its effects.

Preventing Kernicterus and Cerebral Palsy

preventing kernicterus and cerebral palsy

Failure to treat jaundice in newborns can cause kernicterus, which can result in athetoid cerebral palsy.

Kernicterus develops over a very short amount of time in newborns, so immediate medical attention is essential to prevent or minimize its effects.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand the link between kernicterus and cerebral palsy. Good luck!

Featured image: ©

Keep It Going: Discover a home exercise program for CP that’s actually fun to do!

adult with cerebral palsy smiling while using FitMi home therapy

Finally! There’s a recovery device for CP that’s actually fun to use. See how Flint Rehab’s tools are helping with CP recovery:

“The FitMi and MusicGlove have done wonders for my son with hemiparesis from cerebral palsy and stroke.

It motivates him to do his exercises. It does not seem like therapy for him since it is fun. It monitors his progress so it is a great reinforcement for him.

Music is a motivator for him. He has been using it on his arm and we will try the leg exercises soon.”

FitMi works by motivating high repetition of therapeutic exercises while playing an engaging game. This gamification has been particularly great for motivating individuals with cerebral palsy to recover.

To see how FitMi works, click the button below:

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