How Will Kernicterus Affect My Baby Long Term?


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Childbirth, though it happens over 10,000 times a day in the U.S., often comes with complications for mothers or babies. However, most childbirth complications are minor and clear up on their own, or they are treated quickly and easily without any lingering effects.

One common example is jaundice. The March of Dimes reports that jaundice occurs in about half of full-term newborns and 80 percent of babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Jaundice is a buildup of a yellowish substance called bilirubin formed as the hemoglobin in red blood cells breaks down. It’s normal for a baby to have bilirubin levels that are a bit high when they are first born, but if the baby’s liver isn’t working properly, it won’t be effective in removing the substance, which results in jaundice.

Most of the time, jaundice in newborns is a medical condition that is easily resolved without further complications. However, when a baby has a severe case and the liver isn’t functioning effectively, it can develop into a neurological disorder known as kernicterus.

What Happens When A Baby Develops Kernicterus?

When jaundice is severe, and kernicterus develops, the buildup of bilirubin reaches very high levels and spreads to the brain, causing brain damage. This damage is permanent. Once kernicterus progresses to this point, there is no cure for the condition. However, when kernicterus is diagnosed and treated early, further brain damage may be limited. That’s why it is so important that doctors identify jaundice promptly and begin treatment immediately. Treatments include blood transfusions where small amounts of blood are withdrawn and replaced with donor blood until most of the blood has been exchanged.

How Does Kernicterus Affect The Brain?

Kernicterus can have long-term effects on a child because it affects multiple key areas of the brain, especially those that control movement. The parts of the brain that are impacted in most cases include:

  • Globus pallidus (Basal ganglia) – This part of the brain is primarily responsible for motor control
  • Cerebellum – This area is responsible for postural adjustments required to maintain balance
  • Hippocampus – The hippocampus helps control learning and memory
  • Cranial nerve nuclei – These are collections of cells that include the oculomotor (vision), cochlear (hearing), and vestibular (movement)
  • Geniculate bodies – This is a part of the thalamus that processes vision

What Are The Long-Term Effects Of Kernicterus On Children?

The brain cell damage caused by kernicterus can be permanent. Children can develop new symptoms even long after their initial treatments. These symptoms are often permanent, resulting in disabilities that last a lifetime.

Some of the long-term symptoms of kernicterus include:

  • Difficulty speaking
  • Inability to look upwards
  • Sensory problems, most often hearing loss
  • Stains on teeth enamel
  • Abnormal motor development and movement
  • Muscle spasms that look like writhing
  • Seizures or convulsions

Kernicterus can lead to deafness and more severe neurological conditions like athetoid cerebral palsy. This type of cerebral palsy, also called dyskinetic cerebral palsy, is characterized by involuntary, abnormal movement. Children with athetoid cerebral palsy may fluctuate between hypotonia (low muscle tone or floppiness) and hypertonia (high muscle tone that creates muscle tension and stiffness). It can also result in involuntary movement in the arms, hands, legs, and feet, making it hard to walk or grasp objects.

When Can I Sue For My Child’s Kernicterus?

Because the prevalence of jaundice is so high in newborns, there really is no excuse for doctors and nurses to miss the signs. When it is caught early, and proper treatment is given, the risks of long-term complications decrease exponentially. However, when doctors or other medical professionals fail to recognize the signs of jaundice and the condition advances to kernicterus, it may be considered medical negligence, and parents may be able to file a birth injury lawsuit against the responsible parties. Doctors’ standard practice is to check newborns for signs of jaundice during the first two days after birth and then again at their 5-day wellness checks.

Ross Feller Casey Can Help Hold Medical Staff Accountable

The early diagnosis and proper treatment of jaundice are critical to prevent it from becoming a potentially debilitating medical condition. When kernicterus develops in a baby, it often indicates that medical malpractice has occurred. Failing to treat jaundice puts the baby at serious risk.

Suppose your baby suffered from kernicterus, leading to developing cerebral palsy or another serious complication. In that case, you likely already know it is a life-changing event for you and your baby. The ongoing care required is costly, and your family’s emotional distress is overwhelming.

Ross Feller Casey, one of the nation’s leading birth injury law firms, is here to help you determine the potential next steps. You may be able to pursue compensation through a birth injury lawsuit for your child’s medical expenses, ongoing treatment expenses, and emotional suffering. Our birth injury attorneys are ready to fight for your family by holding the medical professionals who were negligent accountable.

Contact our office today to set an appointment for your free consultation. You will not be charged anything until we win a financial recovery in your case.

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