Hypoxia means low or inadequate oxygen. Birth hypoxia occurs when a newborn's body does not get enough oxygen around the time of birth — whether shortly before, during or after delivery. This results in too little oxygen going to the tissues.
Birth hypoxia can cause serious brain damage. When the newborn's brain is deprived of oxygen, the condition is called hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. How serious the damage is depends upon how long the brain goes without oxygen, what part of the brain is affected, and how mature the brain cells are.
In the United States and most other advanced nations, the rate of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy is between one and eight per 1,000. Birth asphyxia, a related, more serious condition, is responsible for 23 percent of all newborn deaths around the world.
Signs and Symptoms of Hypoxia
Before birth, signs of hypoxia include:
- Irregular heart rate
- Slow heart rate
- Absence of fetal movement
Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy is noticed most often in infants at birth. Signs of hypoxia after birth include:
- Pale skin or skin tinged blue
- Slow heart rate
- Unresponsive reflexes
- Feeble cry
- Lack of crying
- Problems breathing
- Poor muscle tone
Complications of Hypoxia
Severe hypoxia may eventually lead to death of the infant. If the hypoxia progresses to hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), the more severe condition in which the brain does not receive enough oxygen, there can be long-term neuromotor (involving the brain, nerves, and movement) consequences.
Severe complications of hypoxia may include:
- Developmental complications
- Epilepsy and seizures
- Mental retardation
- Cerebral palsy
- Studies more recently have shown a connection between HIE and development of schizophrenia later in life
- Vision problems may be caused by hypoxia that damages the optic nerve
Injury to the brain and nerve cells appear to increase over the newborn's first 24 to 48 hours of life. This time period may offer a window of opportunity during which the doctors and nurses can provide good supportive therapy for the newborn.
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