Glossary of medical terms

I have put together the meaning of some of the medical terms often used in medical negligence claims. I and my team have experience with all the medical conditions described in the glossary and can help you pursue a claim if you think you, or your child, has been damaged and as a consequence have any of these conditions.

Asphyxia

This also means a lack of oxygen (caused by suffocation). Therefore, asphyxial brain damage is much the same as hypoxic brain damage.

Birth asphyxia

Means brain damage caused by a lack of blood and oxygen to the brain during birth.

Birth trauma

Birth trauma is a term used to indicate that the baby has suffered a physical injury during the process of being born. The type of injuries which may occur include skull fractures, brain haemorrhages, lacerations and contusions (bruises) of the brain, nerve injuries and spinal cord injuries. Nerve injuries include brachial plexus injuries (Erb’s and Klumke’s palsies). Birth trauma can occur during all types of deliveries but is particularly associated with forceps and ventouse (suction) deliveries, vaginal breech (bottom first) deliveries, and deliveries of babies who are unusually large (sometimes called fetal macrosomia). The last of these is sometimes caused by maternal diabetes. Babies who are born very fast are also at risk of birth trauma. These are called precipitate deliveries. Even difficult Caesarean section births can be complicated by birth trauma.

Cerebal palsy

Cerebral palsy is a term which is used to signify that the sufferer has physical difficulties with their movements and posture caused by a permanent problem with their brain, such as brain damage. There are different types of cerebral palsy. In spastic cerebral palsy the muscles are abnormally stiff. In dystonic cerebral palsy the tone in the muscles varies depending on factors such as the child’s position and their emotional state. In athetoid (or choreo-athetoid) cerebral palsy there are lots of abnormal movements. These may be writhing in type (athetosis) or jerky (chorea). In ataxic cerebral palsy there is a problem with balance. If all the limbs are involved the cerebral palsy is called quadriplegic or tetraplegic. If only the legs are involved, or if they are mainly involved, the cerebral palsy is called diplegic. If only one side is involved, the cerebral palsy is called hemiplegic. Cerebral palsy has many different underlying causes. In fact, just about anything which can affect the brain at a young age can lead to cerebral palsy. Birth asphyxia and birth trauma are important causes of cerebral palsy which may be preventable with good obstetric care.

Encephalitis

This literally means inflammation of the brain. It is usually caused by viruses. There are many different types of viruses which can cause encephalitis. Only some of these can be treated with specific antiviral drugs. One of the most common types of encephalitis is herpes (simplex) encephalitis, which is caused by the herpes simplex virus. This type of encephalitis can be treated with antiviral drugs, but treatment has to be started early to avoid brain damage. Herpes encephalitis occurs at all ages, including in new born babies. Some types of encephalitis can be prevented by vaccines. These include measles encephalitis. Some viral infections elsewhere in the body can trigger allergic reactions in the brain leading to encephalitis. This type of encephalitis is sometimes called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). Very occasionally ADEM can be caused by vaccines. ADEM can be treated by drugs, including steroids.

Encephalopathy

This terms is used to imply brain dysfunction (i.e. that the brain is not working properly). This is often because it has been starved of blood or oxygen or both. This is called hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy (HIE). A common cause of HIE is birth asphyxia.

Epilepsy

This is a condition in which the sufferer experiences repeated epileptic seizures. There are many different types of epileptic seizure. Epileptic seizures can look very frightening. However, it is very rare for them to cause any damage, although occasionally severe injuries can occur. However, prolonged epileptic seizures (lasting over 30 minutes) can cause brain damage. A prolonged epileptic seizure is called status epilepticus. If the wrong drugs are used to treat epilepsy the condition may be made worse than it would otherwise be. Frequent epileptic seizures can have a damaging effect on the development of children.

Heart problems

The heart is responsible for pumping oxygen containing blood to the brain. Therefore, heart problems may cause the brain to be starved of blood and / or oxygen, resulting in hypoxic-ischaemic brain damage. Children born with heart problems (this is known as congenital heart disease) may need operating on as babies, in infancy, childhood or as adults. Delays in operations, or operations which go wrong are important causes of brain damage. Brain damage can also result from blood clots forming in the brain or from heart valves which become infected. Both of these can cause strokes. Some people have serious heart problems but are unaware that they do so. One important cause of this is hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HOCM). This is a particular danger to young athletes. Fortunately, this condition can be detected by screening tests. All professional athletes should be screened for HOCM. If these tests are not done, or the findings ignored or misinterpreted, the sufferer may suddenly have a heart attack, usually during excercise. If they survive, they may have suffered hypoxic-ischaemic brain damage.

Hydrocephalus

This literally means water on the brain. In this condition fluid (called CSF) accumulates in and around the brain, causing increased pressure. This can have many damaging effects. Late treatment of hydrocephalus can cause brain damage and can damage vision. However, there are effective treatments for hydrocephalus. The most common is placement of a shunt. Shunts can become infected and can block. If these complications are not treated promptly brain damage can result.

Hypoglycaemia

This means low blood glucose (sugar) level. Glucose is the main source of energy to the brain. Prolonged hypoglycaemia can cause brain damage (hypoglycaemic brain damage)

Hypoxia and ischaemia often occur together. Therefore, hypoxic-ischaemic brain damage is brain damage caused by a lack of blood and oxygen. There are many potential causes of hypoxic-ischaemic brain damage. It can occur if surgical operations go wrong. Operations for heart problems (including congenital heart disease) carry a particular risk of causing hypoxic ischaemic brain damage. 

Hypoxia

This means a lack of oxygen (anoxia means a complete lack of oxygen). Therefore, hypoxic (or anoxic) brain damage is brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen reaching the brain.

Ischaemia

This means a lack of blood. Therefore, ischaemic brain damage is brain damage caused by a lack of blood reaching the brain.

Jaundice

This is a yellow discoloration of the skin caused by excessive amounts of a pigment in the blood called bilirubin. Newborn babies often become jaundiced and this can be treated effectively using light treatment or occasionally by a special type of blood transfusion called an exchange blood transfusion. If jaundice is not treated in the newborn period, the bilirubin can enter the brain and cause brain damage. This is called kernicterus. Even if it does not cause brain damage, it can cause deafness. Damage caused by jaundice is nearly always preventable.

Meningitis

This literally means inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are membranes which cover the brain. Meningitis can be caused by many different bugs, including bacteria and viruses. Viral meningitis is nasty but is not usually serious. Bacterial meningitis is very serious. If treated late it can lead to brain damage. Different types of bacteria tend to cause problems in different age groups. In babies (including premature babies) most cases are caused by E.coli or group B streptococcus (often just called group B strep). In older children most cases of bacterial meningitis are caused by the meningococcus, the pneumococcus or haemophilus. Tuberculous meningitis is caused by the bacterium which causes tuberculosis (TB). It is now very rare in the UK. Some types of bacterial meningitis can be prevented by vaccines. These include some types of meningococcal meningitis, haemophilus meningitis and tuberculous meningitis.