What causes brain swelling?

A variety of different conditions are known to cause brain swelling, and, in some instances, the cause may not be known. Brain swelling can take two forms, hydrocephalus, in which fluid collects in the ventricles and the swelling occurs from the inside outward, and cerebral edema, in which the fluid collects in the brain tissue and the swelling is generalized.

Causes of brain swelling related to hydrocephalus

The causes of brain swelling in which excess fluid collects in the ventricles of the brain (hydrocephalus) are not always known but may include:

  • Birth defects
  • Brain or spinal cord injury
  • Brain or spinal cord tumor
  • Complications of birth
  • Cysts or tumors
  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Infection
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus

    Causes of brain swelling related to cerebral edema

    Brain swelling related to cerebral edema can be caused by a number of conditions including:

    • Brain tumors
    • Chemical imbalances
    • Diabetic ketoacidosis (a life-threatening complication of diabetes)
    • Exposure to certain toxins
    • Head trauma
    • High altitude sickness
    • Infection
    • Malignant hypertension (severe high blood pressure)
    • Opioid abuse
    • Stroke

    Serious or life-threatening causes of brain swelling

    In some cases, brain swelling may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

    • Brain or spinal cord injury
    • Brain or spinal cord tumor
    • Diabetic ketoacidosis (a life-threatening complication of diabetes)
    • Exposure to certain toxins
    • Head trauma
    • High altitude sickness
    • Infection
    • Malignant hypertension (severe high blood pressure)
    • Opioid abuse
    • Stroke

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of brain swelling

    To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your brain swelling including:

    • What specific symptoms have you noticed?
    • Did anything such as an injury or illness precede the symptoms?
    • Have you checked your blood sugar?
    • Have you been exposed to any toxic substances?
    • Have you recently traveled from a low altitude to a higher altitude?
    • What medications are you taking?

    What are the potential complications of brain swelling?

    Because brain swelling can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

    • Cognitive impairment
    • Developmental delay
    • Learning disability
    • Loss or alteration of sensation
    • Muscle weakness
    • Paralysis
    • Personality changes
    • Physical disability
    • Unconsciousness and coma

    References:

    1. NINDS traumatic brain injury information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/tbi/tbi.htm.
    2. Hydrocephalus. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002538/
    3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
    4. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
    5. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
    INTRODUCTION

    What is brain swelling?

    A variety of conditions are known to cause brain swelling, which is enlargement of the brain due to excessive fluid collection in the chambers, or ventricles, of the brain or the accumulation of fluid within the brain tissue itself.

    Excess fluid in the ventricles of the brain leads to a condition known as hydrocephalus. The fluid exerts outward pressure on the brain tissue, pressi... Read more about brain swellingintroduction

    SYMPTOMS

    What other symptoms might occur with brain swelling?

    Brain swelling may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the brain may also involve other body systems.

    Symptoms of infection that may occur along with brain swelling

    Brain swelling may occur as a result of an infection. Other symptoms suggestive of infection that are known to cau... Read more about brain swellingsymptoms

    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 23, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

    This Article is Filed Under: Brain and Nerves