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What is hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which too much fluid builds up and puts pressure on the brain. In Latin, hydro means "water" and "cephalus" means head. People commonly refer to hydrocephalus as "water on the brain." The water is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Hydrocephalus occurs most often in newborns.

What is the cause?

We all produce CSF that flows around the brain and spinal cord. Hydrocephalus can occur when a block in the flow of this fluid inside the brain develops. This causes swelling of the spaces in the brain called the ventricles. When the ventricles swell, they cause harmful pressure on the tissues of the brain. Another cause of hydrocephalus is when there is a problem absorbing the CSF fluid on the outside of the brain.

In children and adults, hydrocephalus can happen after a head injury or when there is a tumor, infection, or bleeding anywhere in the brain. Adults may develop hydrocephalus when the brain is damaged by stroke or when the body has trouble absorbing the fluid. It may happen after illness or injury, but most of the time the cause is unknown.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms include:

  • a bulging soft spot on the top of the head (the anterior fontanel)
  • an unusually large head
  • vomiting, sleepiness, and irritability
  • seizures
  • downward deviation of the eyes
  • developmental delays

The symptoms of hydrocephalus in older children and adults include:

  • problems with balance, coordination, or walking
  • headache followed by vomiting and nausea
  • eyes that tend to look downward
  • blurred or double vision
  • drowsiness, lethargy, irritability, or changes in personality.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's health care provider will examine you child and ask about the symptoms. Your provider will suspect hydrocephalus if your child's head circumference is growing too fast. Your child's provider may measure your child's head. If the head is too large for your child's age, scans such as an ultrasound, CT scan or an MRI, may be done to check for enlarged ventricles in the brain. Sometimes hydrocephalus can be diagnosed before a child is born.

What is the treatment?

Your child's health care provider will check what treatment options are available. Surgery is commonly done to treat hydrocephalus. The surgeon usually places a tube called a shunt, from the brain to the abdomen or blood vessels near the heart. This allows the extra fluid to drain. For a child, repeat surgery may be needed as they grow in order to lengthen the shunt tube.

How long will the effects last?

Hydrocephalus may be mild or severe. In mild cases, there may be normal intelligence and a near normal life span. In severe cases, the pressure on the brain may destroy brain tissue and result in brain damage and physical handicaps.

Where can I get more information?

For more information, contact the Hydrocephalus Association at 888-598-3789 or visit their Web site at Families who have a loved one with hydrocephalus may need counseling or support. There are professional services available including public health agencies, social services and other agencies for care and support.

Developed by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-05-09
Last reviewed: 2005-11-01
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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