Hydrocephalus is a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid, the clear fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord, builds up inside cavities in the brain called ventricles. The accumulation of fluid causes the ventricles to enlarge and the pressure inside the head to increase. This pressure can damage brain tissues and impair brain function.
Cerebrospinal fluid is continually produced inside the ventricles of the brain. It protects the brain from injury, helps deliver nutrients to the brain, removes waste, and plays an important role in cerebral blood flow. It normally flows through the ventricles into spaces around the brain and spinal cord and is then absorbed into the bloodstream, primarily by blood vessels in tissues near the base of the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid can build up in the ventricles due to overproduction, poor absorption, or an obstruction.
How common is hydrocephalus?
Over 1 million people in the United States are living with hydrocephalus. It is the most common reason for brain surgery in children.
Who gets hydrocephalus?
Hydrocephalus can affect people of all ages, but it is more common among infants and older adults.
Hydrocephalus that is present at birth (congenital) or shortly after birth may be caused by genetic abnormalities or problems that occur during fetal development.
Other causes of hydrocephalus include:
- Central nervous system diseases, such as meningitis
- Bleeding in the brain (hemorrhage)
- Traumatic brain injuries
How is hydrocephalus diagnosed?
In addition to physical and neurological examinations, your doctor may use any of the following tests to diagnose hydrocephalus:
- MRI scan
- CT scan
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
- Pressure-monitoring techniques
Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary depending on your age, the amount of damage to your brain, and the cause of the fluid buildup. The most obvious symptom of hydrocephalus in an infant is abnormal enlargement of the head. Older children and adults may experience different symptoms because their skulls cannot expand to accommodate an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid.
Generally speaking, symptoms of hydrocephalus may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Vision problems
- Downward deviation of the eyes
- Difficulty walking/gait disturbances
- Cognitive problems, including memory loss
- Loss of bladder control or frequent urge to urinate
Treatment for hydrocephalus usually consists of surgically inserting a shunt system. It consists of a flexible tube called a catheter, which is equipped with a valve that regulates the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. The shunt system diverts the flow of cerebrospinal fluid from the central nervous system to another area of the body where it can be absorbed, such as the abdomen.
An endoscopic third ventriculostomy is another treatment option for some people. In this procedure, a neurosurgeon uses a small video camera called a neuroendoscope, to see inside the brain and then creates a hole in the floor of the third ventricle, allowing cerebrospinal fluid to bypass an obstruction and flow out of the brain.
Information and Resources about Hydrocephalus
- Date of last review: February 17, 2017