Hypertonia in infants is a condition characterized by rigid muscles, difficulty with mobility and flexing, and muscle tension when resting. The primary cause of hypertonia is an injury to the central nervous system (CNS) in utero, during childbirth, or following childbirth. When the motor pathways in the CNS are damaged, the brain cannot effectively communicate to the body’s muscles and reflexes. In infants, this condition can be extremely frustrating and can result in the requirement for therapies and prolonged medical care. If hypertonia is associated with cerebral palsy (CP), known as hypertonic cerebral palsy, the long-term implications can be significant and life changing.
Two Types of Hypertonia in Infants
There are two primary types of hypertonia – spastic hypertonia and dystonic hypertonia. The two variations can be characterized in the following ways:
- Spastic Hypertonia: Random, uncontrolled spasms, contractions, and movements of the muscles characterize spastic hypertonia. Such spasms may affect an entire group of muscles, or smaller areas. Spastic hypertonia is most often associated with injury to the spinal cord, or with injury to the brain, such as with CP.
- Dystonic Hypertonia: Involuntary, sometimes fixed, posture and muscle movement, along with resistance to stretching and flexing, characterize dystonic hypertonia. This rigidity and stiffening is often accompanied by abnormal muscle tone and reduced flexibility, such as in Parkinsonism in patients with Parkinson’s Disease.
Is Hypertonia the Same as Cerebral Palsy?
Hypertonia in infants often leads to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, though it is noted that hypertonia can be caused by a variety, or combination, of factors. Common injuries that occur in utero, during childbirth, or shortly after childbirth that lead to hypertonia include:
- Injuries to the head
- Infection in the CNS
- Lack of oxygen at birth
- Ingestion of heavy metals
Infants exhibiting signs of hypertonia should be under the care of a qualified physician as soon as possible. Parents who believe their infant was injured in utero, or during childbirth, should be swift in seeking support from applicable hospital representatives, local agencies, and attorneys who specialize in birth injuries. Hypertonia, with or without CP, can result in long-term medical care, physical and occupational therapies, and financial expenses for the family. When these conditions are caused by negligent medical care, it is important that the family be provided with the tools necessary to get adequate treatment for their child and promote positive future outcomes for their entire family.
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