Neonatal Stroke

Although most people associate strokes with older people and something that occurs with age-related diseases, infants are also, unfortunately, at risk. In fact, newborn infants have the same chances of experiencing a stroke as an elder person. Even so, neonatal stroke remains a mystery to many parents. It’s important to understand not only how common neonatal strokes are, but what the causes are and the signs to look out for.

What is a Neonatal Stroke?

 According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a neonatal stroke is a medical condition that occurs when an infant’s blood supply is disturbed within the first 28 days of life. If an infant has a stroke within the first 7 days of life, it’s known as a  perinatal stroke.

Both strokes are described as the brain experiencing both a hypoxic event (oxygen deprivation) and a blockage to the blood vessels. Doctors estimate that about 1 in every 4,000 babies experience a neonatal stroke.

What Causes Neonatal Stroke?

One of the causes of neonatal stroke is hypoxia, an event when oxygen deprivation causes the brain to panic. The health of the mother can sometimes affect whether a child will have a neonatal stroke, especially if she has disorders such as: autoimmune disorders, coagulation disorders, prenatal cocaine exposure, infection, congenital heart disease, diabetes, and trauma.

Factors that can affect a neonatal stroke during pregnancy include: placental abruption, placental infection, and chorioamnionitis.

Other miscellaneous disorders affecting the mother and/or baby’s health and resulting in a neonatal stroke include: blood, homocysteine, and lipid disorders (such as polycythemia, disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, prothrombin mutation, lipoprotein a deficiency, factor VIII deficiency, and factor V leiden mutation).

A neonatal stroke can also be caused by maternal infection through infections affecting the central nervous system or other systemic infections. However, several parents and doctors are worried as the cause of a neonatal stroke isn’t always obvious: some healthy children born after an uncomplicated pregnancy and normal labor and delivery may still experience a neonatal stroke.

What are the Symptoms of a Neonatal Stroke?

In some instances, there are no outward symptoms of neonatal stroke. Unfortunately, when there are no obvious symptoms, an infant stroke may go undetected for several months. As the child grows older, symptoms such as speech difficulties, imbalance, and numbness on one side of the body may appear; symptoms that are almost impossible to detect in newborn babies.

In other instances, there are clear signs and symptoms of neonatal stroke, though they may also be difficult to detect. Seizures are the most common symptom of neonatal stroke, yet when newborns experience seizures, it’s not as easy to detect. Physicians must carefully watch for blank staring, pedaling movements with the legs, apnea, jerking movements, and single jerks involving a single limb or the entire body.

What is the Treatment for Neonatal Stroke?

One of the newest and most experimental forms of treatment is hypothermia. While it doesn’t seemingly make sense that a way to treat a condition is another serious condition, the serious drop in temperatures keeps the infant’s brain and body from overheating and reacting to the increased flow in blood.

With hypothermia, there is more constriction of blood vessels, and the brain is less likely to react into hyperactive responses that result in brain damage. In fact, doctors have found that stroke patients treated with hypothermia are far more likely to make a rapid recovery.

Another experimental treatment is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: by putting a child in an environment of 100% oxygen, the important gas floods the body, keeping the blood and the brain from overacting to oxygen deprivation, sometimes preventing permanent brain damage. If your doctor prefers to stay away from experimental forms of treatment, there are other anticoagulant treatments, such as heparin and urokinase.

What is the Prognosis?

It is important to get rapid medical attention to your child if he or she experiences a neonatal stroke: of the children that survive a neonatal stroke, as many as 1 million a year of those survivors may develop cerebral palsy.

If, however, you respond quickly and if your doctor is willing to try experimental treatments such as hypothermia or Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, your child may quickly recover and may not suffer any long term disabilities.