What is hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which excess fluid collects in the brain. The fluid, called cerebrospinal fluid, is produced in cavities located deep within the brain known as ventricles. The fluid fills the ventricles and flows into the spinal cord and out into the subarachnoid space where it absorbed. The subarachnoid space is a space between the layers of the membrane that cover the brain and spinal cord.

Normally, cerebrospinal fluid is absorbed as quickly as it is produced, so that the amount stays relatively constant. Hydrocephalus occurs when something blocks the flow or absorption of the fluid, or if an excess amount of fluid is produced. As the pressure of the fluid increases, the ventricles enlarge and the brain is pressed against the skull, damaging the brain tissue.

Hydrocephalus may be present at birth, and can occur with other abnormalities, genetic conditions, or infections. It can also occur after birth as a result of certain infections, bleeding in the brain, injury, or tumors of the brain or spinal cord. Unlike adult skulls, which are solid bone, infant skulls have fibrous tissue connecting the bony plates, allowing their heads to expand if hydrocephalus is present. With age, the fibrous connections ossify, or become bony, which means that the skull cannot expand if hydrocephalus occurs later in life.

Symptoms of hydrocephalus depend upon age, and may range from irritability, sleepiness, and poor feeding to vomiting, personality and memory changes, difficulty walking, and urinary incontinence. Treatment is aimed at fixing the cause of the hydrocephalus and relieving the pressure on the brain. It is not known how many adults are affected by hydrocephalus, but it is estimated that it occurs in about one in every 500 children (Source: NINDS).

Hydrocephalus can have serious complications, so it is important that it be evaluated and treated without delay. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, absent pulse or heartbeat, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), seizures, severe headache, stiff neck, or severe sleepiness or drowsiness. Poor feeding, unusual irritability, high-pitched, shrill cries, and persistent vomiting in infants and children also need emergency evaluation.

Seek prompt medical care if you or someone you are with has symptoms suggestive of hydrocephalus, such as progressive memory loss, personality changes, difficulty thinking, increasing sleepiness, headache, coordination and walking problems, urinary incontinence, or vomiting. Additional symptoms in children may include slow growth, changes in facial appearance, increase in head size, and downward gaze.


What are the symptoms of hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus symptoms can be quite subtle or very obvious depending upon age, rapidity of onset, cause, and how much damage has occurred.

Common symptoms of hydrocephalus in infants and small children

Infants and small children may not be able to express their symptoms directly, but some changes may be apparent including:


What causes hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus results from an imbalance between the formation of cerebrospinal fluid and its absorption. The cause of this is not always known.

In some cases, hydrocephalus can occur with other birth defects such as spina bifida (incomplete closure of the spinal cord) or it may be related to genetic abnormalities, infection, or trauma. Premature babies who have cerebral hemorrhage... Read more about hydrocephaluscauses


How is hydrocephalus treated?

The goals of treating hydrocephalus are treating the underlying condition, alleviating any blockage if possible, relieving pressure, and preventing ongoing brain damage.

Common treatments of hydrocephalus

Common treatments of hydrocephalus include:

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