The brain and body need oxygen to function. Cellular health is dependent on a regular oxygen supply and as soon as the oxygen supply is cut off or reduced, the body begins to react. Oxygen deprivation can affect organs and tissue within a matter of minutes. The body may compensate by shifting oxygen supply to the brain and most important organs but after a few minutes, cells begin to die off and cause permanent damage.
The most severe injuries involving oxygen deprivation include:
- Oxygen deprivation brain injuries
- Oxygen deprivation birth injuries
Oxygen Deprivation in the Body
The body requires a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients in order to function. Oxygen is absorbed through the lungs and saturates the hemoglobin in the blood, which is then pumped throughout the body by the heart. If the blood supply to the brain, heart, organs, or body tissue is cut off or the oxygen levels are reduced, the body reacts almost immediately.
Regular blood oxygen saturation is generally measured by percentage, with normal levels at 95% to 100%. When the oxygen saturation gets below 90%, it causes hypoxemia, which is an abnormally low level of oxygen. When the oxygen saturation gets below 80%, it begins to affect brain function.
Hypoxemia can cause hypoxia, a medical condition where the body or body part is deprived of enough oxygen to keep the body alive and functioning. General hypoxia can affect the whole body and local hypoxia can affect a body part, like a tourniquet on the arm cutting off blood supply to the hand.
There are a number of causes of oxygen deprivation, including traumatic accidents, medical conditions, and environmental causes.
Traumatic Injuries Causing Oxygen Deprivation
Traumatic accidents that injure the respiratory system can cause oxygen deprivation locally or generally. Accidents that damage the airway can prevent the individual from being able to get enough oxygen into the lungs to be absorbed by the body. Damage to the lungs can prevent the body's ability to breathe or absorb oxygen. Other injuries may impair the cardiovascular function and prevent oxygenated blood from getting to body parts or the brain. Traumatic injuries that may cause oxygen deprivation include:
- Car accidents
- Fall injuries
- Gunshot wounds
- Industrial accidents
- Sports injuries
Medical Conditions Causing Oxygen Deprivation
Medical conditions, including temporary, chronic, and congenital conditions, can make it difficult for the individual to absorb enough oxygen for normal oxygen saturation. Medical conditions that affect the brain, lungs, heart, or other functions include:
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Environmental Conditions Causing Oxygen Deprivation
Oxygen is absorbed from the air around us. Our normal oxygen supply is generally conditional upon the oxygen supply being sufficient to breathe and function normally. When the oxygen levels drop, individuals can compensate with rapid or deeper breaths or supplemental oxygen. If the individual is still not able to get enough oxygen, it can cause injury.
Oxygen levels are lower at higher altitudes. Over time, individuals can acclimate to lower environmental oxygen levels. Rapid altitude changes can make it difficult for people to breathe, cause labored breathing, or even make individuals lose consciousness. For example, if someone who lives near sea level takes a weekend ski trip to Colorado, they may feel the onset of altitude sickness, caused by oxygen deprivation. Effects of altitude sickness include:
- Shortness of breath
- Sleeping problems
More serious cases of altitude sickness can cause pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. Cerebral edema causes fluid to build up in the brain, which is a serious and life-threatening condition. Pulmonary edema is also a dangerous condition with fluid build-up in the lungs, which can make absorbing oxygen even more difficult.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is another common environmental cause of oxygen deprivation. Even if there is plenty of oxygen in the air, carbon monoxide in the air can be absorbed by the hemoglobin, reducing the blood oxygen saturation. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be caused by vehicle exhaust, faulty furnaces, or wood burning stoves. Symptoms can begin with headaches, dizziness, and increased heart rate. Higher levels and longer exposure can lead to respiratory arrest and death.
Oxygen Deprivation Brain Injuries
Brain cells are highly sensitive to the oxygen supply. The brain consumes a disproportionate amount of oxygen compared to other organs. Anoxia, or a complete cut off of oxygen supply to the brain, can trigger brain cell death within minutes. The timeline for brain injuries caused by oxygen deprivation may be as short as:
- 1 minute: Brain cells begin to die but survival and recovery is possible
- 3 minutes: Brain cells and neurons suffer more damage with permanent damage likely
- 10 minutes: Brain damage can be extensive and the patient is unlikely to recover
- 15 minutes: Recovery and survival is nearly impossible
During the initial stages of anoxia or hypoxia, the body may shift blood away from peripheral parts of the body to prioritize blood and oxygen supply to the most important organs, including the heart and brain.
Oxygen deprivation and brain injury can be general and impact the entire brain or it can be localized. Localized oxygen deprivation can be caused by brain bleeds, stroke, or traumatic brain injury. Localized oxygen deprivation can damage a limited area of the brain. The resulting injuries and permanent damage generally depend on the area of the brain that suffered the injury.
Oxygen Deprivation Birth Injuries
Oxygen deprivation birth injuries involve a decrease in oxygen supply to the baby during pregnancy or childbirth. In the moments before, during, and after delivery, the baby may be at the greatest risk of oxygen deprivation injuries. Oxygen deprivation can cause hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).
Causes of oxygen deprivation birth injuries can include:
- Umbilical cord problems
- Maternal hypotension
- Traumatic birth
- Uterine rupture
- Placenta previa
- Anesthesia errors
- Premature birth
- Delayed C-section
Doctors and medical staff understand the importance of oxygen supply and fetal development. During birth, medical personnel should be monitoring vital signs to watch for any signs of oxygen deprivation or fetal distress. Failure to monitor the pregnant mother and baby, delayed reactions to oxygen deprivation, or improper treatment can lead to birth injuries, including cerebral palsy, seizures, and fetal death.
If you believe your child suffered medical negligence during childbirth, contact a birth injury medical malpractice attorney for answers and help with your claim.
Oxygen Deprivation Medical Malpractice Attorneys
If your loved one suffered negligent medical care involving oxygen deprivation, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney about your options. Do not hesitate to contact Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.