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Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is a type of brain damage that affects white matter, and that can cause cerebral palsy. Although there is no current cure for PVL, several treatment options can minimize complications. Ongoing therapy helps children live with the condition.
What Is Periventricular Leukomalacia?
PVL is a form of brain damage that adversely affects the white matter of the infants’ brains. It can be caused during or shortly after birth, as well as while the baby is still in utero. Scientists who researched PVL speculate that it most often develops between 24-and 36 weeks of gestation.
When damage occurs to the white matter in the brain, the cells die, and in turn, holes and empty spaces are created in a part of the brain. The periventricular white matter sends nerve impulses that control motor function. Spasticity, cognitive impairment, and vision issues are often a result of PVL.
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As mentioned earlier, infants with PVL are at a heightened risk of developing cerebral palsy. Anywhere from 60% to 100% of all babies will PVL will also be diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
The name periventricular leukomalacia is derived from the medical terms:
- Periventricular: Around or near the ventricles
- Leuko: White
- Malacia: Softening
What Causes PVL?
The cause of PVL is still uncertain, but medical researchers have surmised that lack of oxygen or lack of blood flow to the periventricular area of the brain is the primary reason the condition develops. Lack of oxygen and blood flow can occur when the infant isn’t delivered in time, such as when a physician fails to perform an emergency C-section.
Babies born too early are at risk as well; premature infants born before 32 weeks gestation are especially susceptible to PVL. Maternal infections and rupture of the amniotic sac are other causes that can lead to PVL.
Other causes can include:
- Using drugs while pregnant
- Failure of physicians to perform an emergency C-section
- Umbilical cord inflammation
- Antepartum hemorrhage
- Carrying twins
- Fetal membrane inflammation
- Infections in the womb during pregnancy
- Asphyxia during pregnancy, labor, and delivery
- Prolonged resuscitation of the infant
Each baby’s symptoms may be unique, and sometimes symptoms may not occur until months after birth. The most common symptom, however, is spastic diplegia, a medical term meaning tight, restricted muscles. Other symptoms may include:
- Loss of coordination
- Vision and hearing problems
- Cognitive impairment
- Impaired development
Spastic diplegia alone doesn’t always mean that babies have PVL. A complete diagnosis must be made first to rule other medical conditions out. According to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, cerebral palsy is the primary symptom of PVL.
Since PVL symptoms can mimic other disorders, physicians perform tests to get an accurate diagnosis. The first test is generally a cranial ultrasound in which sound waves are used to view the infant’s brain.
Another imaging test, the magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI), may be performed to provide a more in-depth, detailed view of the baby’s brain.
Treatment Options for PVL
There are no specific treatment options for PVL, but the child may go through a series of assessments to diagnose conditions that may develop due to PVL, such as cerebral palsy. Afterward, depending on any other medical conditions, treatment may consist of physical, speech, and occupational therapy, medications, and assistive devices, if needed.
Keep in mind that treatment for associated medical conditions is generally determined by:
- The infant’s age
- The severity of the medical condition
- How the infant handles (tolerates) certain medications and therapies
- The parents’ opinions and decisions on treatment options
Some infants will PVL will have minor medical issues but otherwise remain healthy. On the other hand, babies with severe PVL may have severe, long-term disabilities. Prognosis depends on what other medical conditions, if any, the baby develops as a result of PVL.
Is There Any Way to Prevent PVL?
Since unknown factors can cause PVL, prevention can be difficult.
Regular medical checkups during pregnancy while avoiding alcohol and drugs are the best ways to prevent PVL. There is no guarantee, as sometimes PVL can still occur even with the best prenatal care.
In the meantime, researchers and scientists continue to research screening and testing to help better identify intrauterine infections as causes of PVL. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH) states that most of the research being done regarding PVL is to prevent the condition and find better ways to treat infants diagnosed with PVL.
However, the good news is that PVL is not a progressive disease, meaning it will not worsen over time.
- Pediatric Periventricular Leukomalacia: Background, Pathophysiology, Epidemiology. (2019, November 10). Diseases & Conditions - Medscape Reference.
Retrieved from: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/975728-overview
- Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) in children. (n.d.). Stanford Children's Health - Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.
Retrieved from: https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=periventricular-leukomalacia-pvl-90-P02619