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Clinical features, diagnosis, and treatment of neonatal encephalopathy

Yvonne Wu, MD, MPH
Section Editors
Douglas R Nordli, Jr, MD
Leonard E Weisman, MD
Deputy Editor
John F Dashe, MD, PhD


Neonatal encephalopathy is a heterogeneous, clinically defined syndrome characterized by disturbed neurologic function in the earliest days of life in an infant born at or beyond 35 weeks of gestation, manifested by a reduced level of consciousness or seizures, and often accompanied by difficulty with initiating and maintaining respiration, and by depression of tone and reflexes [1].

This section will review the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of neonatal encephalopathy. The pathogenesis of neonatal encephalopathy is discussed elsewhere. (See "Etiology and pathogenesis of neonatal encephalopathy".)


Neonatal encephalopathy can result from a wide variety of conditions and often remains unexplained. Birth asphyxia and hypoxic-ischemic (anoxic) encephalopathy are responsible for some, but not all, cases of neonatal encephalopathy. Given that the underlying nature of brain injury causing neurologic impairment in a newborn is often poorly understood, "neonatal encephalopathy" has emerged as the preferred term to describe the clinical syndrome of central nervous system dysfunction in the newborn period because it does not imply a specific underlying etiology or pathophysiology. (See "Etiology and pathogenesis of neonatal encephalopathy".)


The incidence of neonatal encephalopathy depends on how the syndrome is defined, but published estimates vary between 2 and 9 per 1000 term births [2-5]. As the term "neonatal encephalopathy" became increasingly favored, it was shown in one US population that the diagnosis of "birth asphyxia" declined between the years 1991 and 2000 [2]. In a 2010 review, the estimated incidence of neonatal encephalopathy was 3.0 per 1000 live births (95% CI 2.7-3.3), while the estimated incidence of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (a subset of neonatal encephalopathy) was 1.5 per 1000 live births (95% CI 1.3-1.7) [6].


The neonate who is encephalopathic may have an abnormal state of consciousness (eg, hyperalert, irritable, lethargic, or obtunded), diminished spontaneous movements, respiratory or feeding difficulties, poor tone, abnormal posturing, absent primitive reflexes, or seizure activity. In the delivery room, the infant will often exhibit low Apgar scores and a weak or absent cry. The severity of neonatal encephalopathy can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe according to these clinical findings, as discussed below. (See 'Clinical predictors' below.)

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Literature review current through: Sep 2017. | This topic last updated: Jul 17, 2017.
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