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What is Hypoxic Encephalopathy?

By K. Gierok
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Hypoxic encephalopathy is a medical condition that happens when the oxygen that normally flows to the brain is either reduced or cut off. There are a couple of different reasons why this happens. Sometimes it’s a natural consequence of something like a stroke or a traumatic accident, but it can also be caused by environmental factors, often related to pressure; people flying in unpressurized aircraft are often particularly at risk, for instance, as are deep sea divers who don’t take the proper precautions or whose pressure meters malfunction. In most cases the condition is considered a medical crisis, and treatment is almost always required immediately to prevent permanent brain damage or even death. Failure to get quick treatment can result in severe impairment to language and vision. Indeed, people suffering from this problem often display decreases in memory, general confusion, and loss of motor control; an increased heart rate is also common. If it goes on for very long, a person can lose consciousness. Treatments are usually successful, but a lot of this depends on when it was caught and how much damage has already been done.

Main Causes

Causes can usually be broken down into two main categories: those that happen as a result of another medical problem or emergency, and those that result from an external trigger. Blood problems like anemia, which is when there isn’t enough iron in the blood, often contribute, since oxygen primarily travels to the brain through the bloodstream. Respiratory conditions like asthma can also play in, since these impact how much oxygen a person is taking in at all. In either of these cases, though, the underlying condition has to be really extreme to lead to encephalopathy. There are usually a number of warning signs that patients can watch for to prevent things from escalating this far.

The condition is also somewhat common after accidents or trauma that lead to shock, which is a blood chemistry problem, or blunt force to the head. Crushing blows to the throat and airways can also be a factor. In addition, diving in very deep water, flying in aircraft that have not been pressurized, and exercising at extreme altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to the condition, too. Undergoing proper preparation for these activities, or avoiding them altogether, is important in the prevention of hypoxic encephalopathy.

How the Body Responds

When the brain loses oxygen, the body's first response is usually to increase the flow of blood to the brain. If this form of self-correction is not successful, individuals will typically begin to experience a decrease in mental functioning, memory, and motor control as the brain begins to slowly lose its functionality. Other symptoms of hypoxic encephalopathy include a bluish tint to the skin, an increase in heart rate, fainting, and possible seizure. Individuals who experience these symptoms are typically encouraged to seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

Treatment Options

The treatment of hypoxic encephalopathy varies quite a bit from case to case. In mild forms of the condition, patients may experience improvements from measures as simple as breathing pure oxygen, typically from a medical mask or tank. More severe cases may require medication or even brain surgery to correct any damage. Surgery is not always a viable option for all patients, especially if they are very old or have been previously diagnosed with a weakened immune system. Patients are often encouraged to undergo physical or occupational therapy in order to improve both fine and gross motor skills.

Prognosis and Healing

The prognosis for this condition depends on how quickly symptoms are identified and treated. Those diagnosed with a mild version of encephalopathy can usually expect a relatively complete recovery. Serious cases, on the other hand, can result in a poorer patient prognosis. For example, patients who enter a coma due to this condition and stay in it for an extended period of time often experience the worst rates of recovery. Patients who experience left-sided encephalopathy typically have difficulty with language and speech, while those with right-sided damage may experience difficulty with visual interpretation or expressing emotions.

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