Sturge-Weber syndrome affects small blood vessels. It is characterized by a port-wine birthmark on the face, a blood vessel tumor (angioma) in the tissues that cover the brain, or both.
Sturge-Weber syndrome is present at birth in about 1 of 50,000 people but is not inherited. It is caused by a spontaneous mutation in a gene. This syndrome affects blood vessels, particularly vessels in the skin, in the tissues that cover the brain, and in the eye. The port-wine birthmark is caused by an overgrowth of small blood vessels (capillaries) just under the skin. Angiomas (overgrowths of capillaries in the tissues covering the brain) cause seizures and may cause weakness on one side of the body. Similar abnormal blood vessels in the eye may increase pressure within the eye (causing glaucoma) and affect vision. Abnormalities in the walls of arteries may increase the risk of strokes.
The port-wine birthmark varies in size and color, ranging from light pink to deep purple. It usually appears on the forehead and upper eyelid of one eye but may also include the lower eyelid and face. If both eyelids are involved, people are much more likely to have an angioma in the tissues covering the brain.
Seizures occur in about 75 to 90% of people and typically start by the time children are 1 year old. Usually, seizures occur on only one side of the body, opposite the birthmark, but they may affect the whole body. About 25 to 50% of people have weakness or paralysis on the side opposite the birthmark. The weakness or paralysis sometimes worsens, especially if seizures cannot be controlled. About 50% of people have some intellectual impairment. Impairment is more severe when seizures start before age 2 years and cannot be controlled with drugs. Development of motor and language skills may be delayed.
Glaucoma may damage the optic nerve, causing loss of vision, in the eye on the same side as the birthmark. Glaucoma may be present at birth or develop later. The eyeball may enlarge and bulge out.
Doctors suspect the diagnosis in children with the characteristic birthmark. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to check for angiomas in the tissues covering the brain. A neurologic examination is done to check for evidence of weakness or incoordination.
Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms. Anticonvulsants (see also Using Drugs to Treat Seizures in Children) and drugs to treat glaucoma are used. Surgery for glaucoma (see Treatment) or for seizures that recur despite drug treatment may be required.
Aspirin may be given in low doses to reduce the risk of strokes.
Laser treatment may be used to lighten or remove the birthmark.
Last full review/revision May 2014 by Margaret C. McBride, MD