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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 severe jaundice. Luckily, it is preventable with early jaundice identification and treatment.

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 and possibly eyes. 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 and kidneys, and removed from the body through our bowel movements and urine.

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 frequently affects an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. Damage from kernicterus can also lead to athetoid cerebral palsy, which is caused by damage to the basal ganglia before, during, or shortly after birth.

Athetoid CP (also called dyskinetic cerebral palsy) 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 attempting to perform purposeful movements.

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

Kernicterus can also cause hearing loss, learning difficulties and vision challenges.

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.

Ideally, jaundice would be identified and treated before kernicterus developed. While damage to the brain from kernicterus 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: ©iStock.com/demkat/traida/prostock-studio/phakimata

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