The brain is the most important set of organs in our body , but it is also one of the most delicate. A small malformation or alteration in its functioning can totally affect its performance, and although thanks to neuroplasticity it can overcome a large number of injuries, this does not always happen.

Hypoxic encephalopathy , in particular, is one of the most serious situations that the brain can suffer and, in fact, is the main cause of brain death. We will now look at what it is, why it occurs and what is usually done to try to reverse this condition.

What is hypoxic encephalopathy?

Encephalopathies are a category used in medicine to refer generally to diseases of the brain, and this case is no exception. In hypoxic encephalopathy, there is a lack of oxygen in this group of organs , so that the tissue formed by neurons and glial cells begins to die, producing a risk of serious sequelae or even death.

This is what can happen, for example, in a cerebral ischemia: the blood flow is interrupted, and as a consequence there are cells that cannot be kept alive and begin to be destroyed quickly.

It must be taken into account that when talking about hypoxic encephalopathy we do not simply talk about the lack of oxygen in the brain , but about the damage to the brain tissues produced by it. It is the disease, and not the cause of cell death.

On the other hand, hypoxic encephalopathy is relatively common, and it is estimated to account for about 25% of infant deaths worldwide. It is also one of the leading causes of death in children in their early childhood.


The main symptoms of the disease depend largely on the area of the brain that is affected, and according to its severity

Mild hypoxic encephalopathy

In this situation, the typical symptoms in hypoxic encephalopathy are these :

  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of hunger.
  • Changes in the way of being and behaving.
  • All significantly elevated muscle.
  • Pale skin.

Moderate hypoxic encephalopathy

The associated symptoms are:

  • Apnea and sudden changes in breathing patterns.
  • Seizures.
  • Low muscle tone.
  • Pale skin .

Severe hypoxic encephalopathy

In these cases they are frequent:

  • Intense seizures.
  • Low heart rate.
  • Very pale skin color.
  • Strange patterns in eye movements.
  • Breathing difficulties.


The prognosis from hypoxic encephalopathy can be very variable, and improves in cases where the initial symptoms improve during the first week. However, as a guide, it is estimated that the main sequelae of the disease are the following :

  • Epileptic seizures.
  • Cognitive impairment.
  • Cerebral palsy.
  • Difficulties in controlling movements.

Stages of this disease

Hypoxic encephalopathy has two phases, each with its risks and possible sequelae. The first phase consists of the damage produced by the deprivation of oxygen itself, while the second is called reperfusion damage .

In this second phase, the restoration of blood flow in the brain is capable of damaging tissues due to the accumulation of substances that had occurred during the previous stage in a certain section of the circulatory system. In this way, everything that has been accumulated passes at the same time through an area of the nervous system that is vulnerable.

Risk factors

It is estimated that the main risk factors associated with the appearance of hypoxic encephalopathy are the following:

  • Meningitis and encephalitis.
  • Congenital malformations of the skull, such as microcephaly
  • Head trauma.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Having had a premature birth.
  • During pregnancy, the risk factors related to the possible development of the disease in the baby are these:
  • Knots in the umbilical cord.
  • Ruptured placenta.
  • Elevated pressure inside the fetus’ skull.
  • Drug use during pregnancy.


In cases of hypoxic encephalopathy it is important to act as soon as possible to prevent areas crucial to the functioning of the nervous system and the overall survival of the body from being damaged. One of the first measures is to use assisted breathing to meet the immediate needs of the body while trying to restore blood flow.

This is followed by the provision of medicines to treat possible seizures . Sometimes treatments are also used to lower the temperature of the affected area of the brain, to change the pressure in that area and to get the irrigation going again.

On the other hand, as the lack of oxygen in the central nervous system may have affected the functioning of all types of organs in the body, it is also necessary to treat these affectations in parallel. If the disease occurs in a newborn baby, these techniques should be as minimally invasive as possible.

In cases where the flow has already been restored but significant consequences have remained, , occupational therapy is highly recommended , as it helps the person to better integrate and gain autonomy over his or her own life.