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Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month

Written by Jeremy Farnum on in Health & Wellness

Knowing what causes craniofacial abnormalities can help females experience healthier pregnancies and reduce their baby’s risk for developing these conditions.

Knowing what causes craniofacial abnormalities can help females experience healthier pregnancies and reduce their baby’s risk for developing these conditions.

Cleft lip, cleft palate, and other craniofacial abnormalities can have adverse effects on many aspects of your life. These rare congenital anomalies often require specialized care, as many of these anomalies can lead to various other health problems including hearing loss and eating difficulty. Many craniofacial abnormalities can be effectively treated with surgery, medications, and other evidence-based therapies.

July is Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month. Continue reading to learn more about common types of craniofacial abnormalities and how to contact Lompoc Valley Medical Center if you or your loved one needs treatment for one of these conditions.

What Are Craniofacial Abnormalities?

Craniofacial abnormalities affect the growth of bones and tissues in the skull and face. Many of these abnormalities can affect a person’s physical appearance and facial functions, as well as other parts of the body.

Craniofacial abnormalities usually develop in the womb as a result of genetics, lifestyle behaviors, disease, or trauma. Treatments for craniofacial abnormalities depend on the type and may involve surgery, speech therapy, or the placement of devices and prosthetics to improve physical appearance and facial functionality.

What Are Common Types of Craniofacial Abnormalities?

There are several types of craniofacial abnormalities, though cleft lip and cleft palate account for the majority of these defects. According to the CDC, cleft lip affects an estimated one in 2,800 babies born in the United States, and cleft palate affects one in 1,700 babies. One in every 1,600 babies is born with both cleft lip and cleft palate.

Cleft Lip

A cleft lip is an opening or split in the upper lip that occurs when the lip fails to completely form during pregnancy. The split in the lip may appear as a mild, small notch or extend from the lip into the bottom of the nose to form a large opening. A cleft lip can lead to a variety of challenges including difficulty feeding and poor tooth development.

Cleft Palate

A cleft palate is an opening or split in the palate (roof of the mouth) that can extend from the hard palate at the front of the mouth to the soft palate in the throat. A cleft palate may not affect your appearance, but it can increase the risk for ear infections, hearing loss, and speech difficulties.

Craniosynostosis

Craniosynostosis is a condition in which the fibrous joints between the bones in the skull close and fuse too early before the brain is fully formed. In craniosynostosis, the brain continues growing to result in a misshapen head.

Babies with craniosynostosis may also develop a raised, hard ridge near the bones that have closed early and experience slow or no head growth as a result. Potential complications associated with this condition include permanent deformity of the head and face, cognitive and developmental problems, and vision impairment.

Hemifacial Microsomia

Also known as Goldenhar syndrome, hemifacial microsomia is a condition in which the tissues on one side of the lower part of the face do not grow or develop normally. The areas of the face most commonly affected by hemifacial microsomia are the mouth, jaw, and ear, with the ear being partially formed or missing, in some cases. Complications of this craniofacial condition usually involve neck problems caused by fusion that occurs between bones in the neck.

Hemangioma

A hemangioma is a bright red birthmark that is present at birth or that appears during the first months of infancy. Hemangiomas are abnormal blood vessels that resemble spongy, rubbery bumps and can grow anywhere on the body, though they usually grow on the face, chest, or back.

Also known as a port-wine stain, many hemangiomas gradually fade over time and do not require treatment. In rare instances, hemangiomas can develop painful sores that can cause infection or cause problems with your vision, breathing, and hearing.

What Causes Cleft and Craniofacial Abnormalities?

Cleft and craniofacial abnormalities can be caused by a variety of factors, though researchers suggest that the most common causes are genetics, environment, and folic acid deficiency. Folic acid is an essential B vitamin that helps prevent major congenital disabilities when taken during pregnancy.

Certain risk factors may also increase the risk of craniofacial abnormalities. These risk factors include:

  • Family history of cleft lip, cleft palate, and other craniofacial abnormalities
  • Use of alcohol and tobacco products during pregnancy
  • Use of certain medications during pregnancy including topiramate and valproic acid
  • Having diabetes
  • Being obese

How Are Cleft and Craniofacial Abnormalities Treated?

Some craniofacial conditions, such as hemangiomas, may not require treatment. However, treatment may be needed for craniofacial abnormalities that lead to other medical problems or that interfere with speech, behavior, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Treatments

Treatments for cleft lip and cleft palate can be used to improve your appearance or the ability to eat, hear, and speak without difficulty. Surgery is a common treatment that may be used to close and repair openings in the lip or palate, and to improve the appearance of the lip and mouth. Surgery may also be used to place ear tubes to prevent hearing loss in children with cleft palate.

Other treatments for cleft lip and cleft palate address specific complications related to these craniofacial conditions. For instance, speech therapy may be used to improve speech difficulty, hearing aids may be used to treat hearing loss, and orthodontic treatment may be used to correct misaligned teeth, jaws, and bites.

Craniosynostosis Treatments

Surgery is the primary treatment for most cases of craniosynostosis, which is often performed to improve the shape of the head and create more room in which the brain can grow normally without being subject to excess pressure. Craniosynostosis surgery can be performed as an open surgery or as minimally invasive endoscopic surgery that involves a smaller incision and less downtime.

Mild cases of craniosynostosis in which the fibrous joints between the bones in the skull are still open may be treated with a specially fitted helmet. A helmet can help reshape the head to create more room in which the brain can grow larger without complications.

Hemifacial Microsomia Treatments

Surgery is usually the primary treatment for hemifacial microsomia. Surgery may be performed to improve your appearance or to improve misaligned teeth and chewing problems.

Tissues and muscles can be transferred from other parts of the body to the cheeks and forehead to add fullness, or to areas of the face where they can enhance facial functions and expressions.

Medical devices or bone and cartilage from other parts of your body may be added to the jaw to stretch and lengthen the jawbone. In addition, reconstruction surgery may be performed to construct an ear that is partially or fully missing.

Hemangioma Treatments

Many hemangiomas fade over time and do not require treatment. In cases where hemangioma is affecting problems with vision or appearance, surgery or medications may be used to remove or shrink the hemangioma.

Laser surgery may be used to remove hemangiomas that are small and thin or to remove sores that grow on the surface of hemangiomas. Beta-blocker gels can be applied topically to hemangiomas to make them shrink and disappear gradually over time, while topical or injectable corticosteroids can be used as a second-line treatment in those who do not respond well to beta-blockers.

Can Craniofacial Abnormalities Be Prevented?

Craniofacial abnormalities caused by genetics or a family history of these conditions may not be preventable. However, you may be able to prevent or reduce your baby’s risk for developing craniofacial abnormalities by making healthy lifestyle changes and working closely with your doctor to ensure you experience a healthy pregnancy.

The following behaviors may help you prevent craniofacial abnormalities:

  • Take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid to reduce the risk of cleft lip and cleft palate. Ask your doctor for recommendations on high-quality prenatal vitamins you can take for the duration of your pregnancy.
  • Avoid alcohol use during pregnancy.
  • Stop smoking as soon as possible, and ask your doctor about cessation treatments that are safe for both you and your baby if you need help quitting after becoming pregnant.
  • Manage your blood sugar levels carefully if you have diabetes, and work with your doctor to reduce your risk for gestational diabetes if you meet risk factors for this condition.
  • Lose excess weight before becoming pregnant.
  • Work with your doctor to avoid gaining more excess weight than needed during pregnancy.
  • Exercise regularly and eat a healthy, balanced diet to prevent obesity.
  • Provide your obstetrician or midwife with a list of medications you are using — especially topiramate and valproic acid — as these and other medications may increase the risk for craniofacial abnormalities when used during pregnancy.

Treating Craniofacial Abnormalities

Lompoc Valley Medical Care offers a wide range of healthcare services, including otolaryngology services, and is home to a large team of medical providers who can safely treat cleft and craniofacial abnormalities in you, your baby, and other loved ones.

Visit our provider page today to make an appointment and to learn more about our many available healthcare services for you and your family.

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Author: Jeremy Farnum, Information Systems

Jeremy works for Lompoc Valley Medical Center.