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con-gen-i-tal: (m-w.com)

  1. existing at or dating from birth [congenital deafness]
  2. acquired during development in the uterus and not through heredity [congenital syphilis]

I ran across the phrase congenital birth defect in a paper, and given the definition above it seems to be redundant.

Yet a simple google search reveals a wide number of uses. Can anyone provide an authoritative explanation about this?

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I suppose it's possible for a birth defect to be hereditary. According to Definition #2, then, a "congenital birth defect" might be referring specifically to one that is not hereditary. – J.R. May 14 '13 at 20:52
@J.R.: Yeah...but, since congenital usually has a broader meaning (correct me if I'm wrong), that sounds like a bad idea: just use some other term to specify a defect acquired as an embryo, such as in utero or embryogenic. – Cerberus May 15 '13 at 0:26
Congenital birth defects (as labelled) also refer to cases where certain mechanisms of causation are known. Because teratogenic toxicology has so many unknowns there are a number of birth defects not-labelled as being congenital because the causal link has not yet been made. – batpigandme May 15 '13 at 0:40
@batpigandme +1 You could add some references and post that as an answer I suppose. – Kris May 15 '13 at 3:57
@Kris: You could have edited this last four words of this post, instead of leaving a comment like that. – J.R. May 15 '13 at 9:58
up vote 3 down vote accepted

After some research, I believe the answer is yes. Congenital anomalies (or congenital defects) are, inherently present at birth. The World Health Organization's first 'key fact' about congenital anomalies states:

Congenital anomalies (also referred as birth defects) affect approximately 1 in 33 infants and result in approximately 3.2 million birth defect-related disabilities every year.

Congenital can refer to different mechanisms of causation [Brent and Fawcett 2007][reference]:

the etiology of congenital malformations can be divided into three categories: unknown, genetic, and environ- mental

[reference]: Brent, RL and Fawcett, LB: Developmental toxicology, drugs, and fetal teratogenesis. In Reece EA, Hobbins JC (eds.) Clinical Obstetrics: The Fetus and Mother, 3rd edition, Blackwell Publishing Inc., Malden, MA, Chapter 15, pp. 217-235, 2007.

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I am confused about your assertion that there are birth defects which are not congenital. What am I missing? – horatio May 16 '13 at 21:17
@horatio That part of it is way outside my wheelhouse (not sure I totally get that part either), so I removed it . I think if might have to do with obstetric injury. – batpigandme May 16 '13 at 21:29
I did some very very cursory digging, and there is a little of both. Seems like a grey area, but I am no longer confused about what you meant. It is certainly outside of my expertise as well. – horatio May 16 '13 at 21:34
@batpigandme Hey again, thank you for your research! The WHO is a great reference. It's always nice to pick out the redundant phrases in common usage. – ktm5124 May 22 '13 at 6:09

Here's what Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary says about congenital:

1 : existing at or dating from birth (congenital deafness)
2 : acquired during development in the uterus and not through heredity (congenital syphilis) — compare ACQUIRED 2, FAMILIAL, HEREDITARY

and here's what it says about congenital adrenal hyperplasia

any of several hereditary disorders that are marked by inadequate synthesis of cortisol due to an enzyme deficiency determined by a defect in an autosomal recessive gene, that are typically characterized by excessive production of androgens, virilization of female external genitalia, and hypertension, and that include a severe form in which inadequate synthesis of aldosterone results in potentially fatal hyponatremia and hyperkalemia shortly after birth—(abbreviation: CAH)

The usage doesn't always mean hereditary or not hereditary: it can mean either. Some congenital conditions are genetically transmitted (hereditary) and some are caused by developmental problems with exogenous (external, not genetic) causes.

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Good idea to check the medical dictionary. Looks like something that's "congenital" doesn't imply heredity one way or the other. – ktm5124 May 15 '13 at 4:41

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