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Can birth trauma cause epilepsy?

View profile for Trevor Ward
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Epilepsy is a chronic brain disease which is noncommunicable and is thought to affect over 50 million people around the world. According to Epilepsy Research Institute UK around 65% of people who are affected by the disease do not know the cause – this is known as idiopathic epilepsy. People who suffer from idiopathic epilepsy often require complex treatment pathways. It is understood that the remaining 35% may know some of the causes of the disease. 

But what of the 65% of people who don’t understand the cause of their epilepsy? Research suggests that this may be rooted in trauma that occurred at birth. But what does this mean for those affected? And how can birth trauma result in epilspsy? Here, we explore these questions.  


First of all, what is epilepsy?  

When assessing whether birth trauma can cause epilepsy it is important to understand what epilepsy is. Epilepsy Foundation describe epilepsy as the fourth most common brain disorder in the world that can cause recurring and unprovoked seizures. People may be diagnosed with the disorder following one or two unprovoked seizures. Yet, it is important to note that not all seizures are epilepsy-related, and often the causes of seizures are completely unknown. 


Symptoms of a seizure can be wide ranging and can include: 

  • Staring 

  • Jolting movements of both arms and legs 

  • The body stiffening 

  • Losing consciousness 

  • Difficulty breathing or stopping breathing completely 

  • Losing control of bladder and bowel movements 

  • A sudden fall, particularly when linked to a loss of consciousness 

  • Being unresponsive to noises or words 

  • Confusion or appearing dazed 

  • Rhythmically nodding of the head 

  • Rapidly blinking or staring 


What does the research say? 

Research into the connection between epilepsy and birth trauma has been carried out for over a century, with published research dating back to 1862. It is thought that idiopathic epilepsy is developed because of birth trauma, and it is probable that over 50% of other epilepsy cases are linked to birth injury or asphyxia. 

From this research it can be said that children can develop epilepsy from birth when they have suffered trauma during delivery. To develop the disorder, brain damage would be caused to the baby from prenatal or perinatal causes such as a loss of oxygen or low birth weight.  


So, is there a link between epilepsy and birth trauma? 

As a loss of oxygen flowing to the brain can cause epilepsy, this could be linked to birth trauma through birth asphyxia. This is when a baby’s brain, or other organs, do not receive enough oxygen before, during or after birth. 

Causes of birth asphyxia include: 

  • Low oxygen levels in the mother’s bloodstream before or during birth 

  • Issues with the placenta, such as separating from the womb too early 

  • Prolonged or difficult delivery 

  • Issues with the umbilical cord during delivery 

  • The mother or baby has a serious infection 

  • The mother has high or low blood pressure 

  • The baby’s airway is not properly formed 

  • There is a blockage in the baby’s airway 

  • The baby has anaemia, meaning its blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen 


Can epilepsy be developed after giving birth? 

In relation to the baby, infants can suffer neonatal seizures before or after you have given birth. The seizure can be caused by several factors, such as: 

  • A lack of oxygen 

  • An acquired infection 

  • Bleeding in the brain 

  • An imbalance in their blood sugar levels 

It is thought that there is an increased probability that a child who has suffered a neonatal seizure will develop epilepsy, if they are born prematurely, experience tonic neonatal seizures or have an underlying brain abnormity.  

It is worth noting that although neonatal seizures are of epileptic origin, the characterisation of the seizures as epileptic or non-epileptic is of continued debate. 

In relation to the mother, it is understood that a woman could develop epilepsy after giving birth. However, this is rare, and especially if the mother does not show any obvious abnormalities. There is a condition, where women may have their first seizure during their pregnancy, and these continue after they have given birth. This is known as new onset epilepsy. 



In conclusion, research has found that there is an association between birth trauma and the development of epilepsy. It is understood that factors such as injury to the brain before birth, or a lack of oxygen flowing to the baby’s brain, can increase the risk of developing the disorder. From this evidence, it cannot be concluded that birth trauma is the sole cause for of epilepsy developed, but it can certainly be claimed as a contributing factor.