Hydrocephalus is the excessive accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within cavities of your brain called ventricles. This excess fluid causes your ventricles to widen, which puts harmful press on the tissues of your brain. Currently, there isn’t a cure for hydrocephalus, but it can be treated.
Hydrocephalus is the abnormal buildup of fluid within your brain. Hydrocephalus comes from the Greek words “hydro,” which means water, and “cephalus,” which means head. Hydrocephalus was once known as “water on the brain.” The “water” is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) — a clear, colorless fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
Normally, CSF flows through areas in your brain called ventricles. CSF serves as a nutrient delivery and waste removal system for your brain. CSF bathes your brain and spinal cord, protecting and cushioning them from injury. CSF is then reabsorbed into your bloodstream.
Your body usually produces the CSF it needs each day and then reabsorbs the same amount. However, when the normal flow or absorption of CSF is blocked, it can result in a buildup of CSF. As the CSF builds up, it causes the ventricles to enlarge. This causes pressure inside of your head to increase. The pressure from too much CSF can keep your brain from functioning properly.
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One to 2 of every 1,000 babies in the United States are born with hydrocephalus. But hydrocephalus also affects older children and adults of all ages.
The four main types of hydrocephalus are communicating hydrocephalus, non-communicating hydrocephalus, normal pressure hydrocephalus and hydrocephalus ex-vacuo.
Another word you may see or hear when learning about hydrocephalus is ventriculomegaly. Ventriculomegaly is the term used when the ventricles of a fetus’s brain are enlarged. Hydrocephalus may be the cause of the ventriculomegaly, but there are other reasons this enlargement might happen.
Hydrocephalus can develop for a number of reasons. Hydrocephalus may be congenital or acquired.
A combination of genetic and environmental factors during fetal development causes congenital hydrocephalus. “Congenital” means present at birth. The most common causes of congenital hydrocephalus are:
Acquired hydrocephalus develops at any point after birth and can affect people of all ages. The most common causes of acquired hydrocephalus are:
In addition, hemorrhage or complications of surgery may cause normal pressure hydrocephalus. Many people develop NPH without an obvious cause.
Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary with age. It can also depend on how far along the disease is (disease progression). It also varies with how well a person tolerates the CSF buildup.
Symptoms in infants may include:
Symptoms in older children may include:
Symptoms in adults may include:
Symptoms in older adults may include:
Hydrocephalus is diagnosed through a neurological evaluation. Your healthcare provider may use brain imaging techniques such as ultrasounds, computer tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Other tests are often performed in adults to diagnose the condition. These tests may include:
No. If left untreated, hydrocephalus can be fatal. Early diagnosis and successful treatment improve the chance for a good recovery.
Yes. Hydrocephalus is treatable. While there currently isn’t a way to prevent or cure hydrocephalus, the condition can be treated with surgery.
Currently, the only way to treat hydrocephalus is with brain surgery. There are two types of brain surgeries used to treat hydrocephalus:
Many people go decades without complications, but things can change quickly. People with shunts must get regular medical checkups. Shunts can break, fail or become infected. If this happens, another brain surgery is required. An ETV can close at any time and put a person in danger.
You should seek help from your healthcare provider if symptoms of a shunt failure or EVT closure develop. These symptoms may include those similar with hydrocephalus, such as:
Or new symptoms, such as:
With surgery and monitoring, many people with hydrocephalus go on to lead normal lives. However, the condition and complications from surgery can vary greatly from person to person. It’s important to work with your healthcare provider to get the care you need.
Hydrocephalus poses a unique risk to both cognitive and physical development in children. Parents of children with hydrocephalus should talk to their healthcare providers to ensure a positive outcome.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Finding out someone you love has been diagnosed with hydrocephalus can be scary. But it’s important to remember you’re not alone. Your healthcare provider can give you the tools and resources you need to support your family. By staying well informed and planning appropriately, your loved one can realize their dreams of living a normal, happy life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/26/2022.
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