Kernicterus is a severe form of brain damage that is caused by a high bilirubin level or excessive jaundice in a newborn infant. Kernicterus involves a certain part of the brain’s basal ganglia called the globus pallidus. It can also cause lesions in the brainstem that affects hearing, eye movements, balance and coordination. Brain damage of the globus pallidus can be seen on an MRI of the brain in infants with kernicterus damage.
About 60% of newborn infants in the United States are jaundiced or have a yellow tinge to their skin. Jaundice can also be seen in the “whites” of the eyes, which look yellow. Jaundice or an elevated bilirubin level can be caused by prematurity, blood group incompatibilities between infant and mother including Rh and ABO blood types, and when bruising such as cephalohematomas and caputs (bleeding under the skin of the scalp), is beginning to heal and get reabsorbed into the body.
Jaundice itself is not dangerous to a newborn unless the doctors allow the bilirubin level to get too high without treatment. Infants who develop brain damage from kernicterus will appear lethargic or sleepy, have a high pitched cry, decreased muscle tone with episodes of increased tone, poor feeding and back arching. When signs of kernicterus or brain damage occur in a baby, immediate treatment with triple phototherapy or lights, hydration, and possibly an exchange transfusion should be started to prevent any further damage to the brain.
A child who develops kernicterus due to a failure to diagnose and treat a high bilirubin level can have movement disorders, hearing loss or deafness, abnormal eye movements, and abnormal staining of the tooth enamel. Cerebral Palsy (CP) that is a result of kernicterus is usually the dystonic or athetoid form of CP. An athetoid form of CP is when there is slow, writhing movements, where the dystonic form of CP is abnormal muscle tone and position.
High bilirubin levels and kernicterus are easily treatable disorders in a newborn. Many times, the failure to diagnose and properly treat kernicterus leads to permanent brain damage and cerebral palsy in an infant. Here at the Beasley medical malpractice law firm, we have had over $2 billion awarded on behalf of our injured clients. If your child developed brain damage due to a high bilirubin level or kernicterus, please feel free to speak with one of our experienced attorneys, doctors, emergency room or neonatal intensive care (NICU) nurses at 1.888.823.5291 for a strictly confidential and free consultation.