What is hydrocephalus?
Hydrocephalus is a condition that occurs when extra cerebrospinal fluid accumulates inside the ventricles (deep cavities) of the brain.
This extra cerebrospinal fluid collects because of an obstruction, inadequate fluid absorption in the brain, or, in rare cases, overproduction of cerebrospinal fluid.
Cerebrospinal fluid is an extremely important substance for normal brain and body function. It has several functions, including:
- Protecting your brain and spinal cord
- Bringing nutrients to your brain
- Ferrying waste products away from your brain
- Regulating pressure changes
All of these important functions can't occur if you have too much cerebrospinal fluid around your brain. The excess cerebrospinal fluid pressures your delicate brain tissues and this can lead to serious impairments if untreated.
Why does hydrocephalus happen?
The causes of hydrocephalus aren't known. It occurs primarily in infants and people over the age of 60.
When hydrocephalus develops later in life, it's often connected to a traumatic brain injury, brain tumor, meningitis, or brain hemorrhage. Developmental disorders, such as spina bifida, may also cause hydrocephalus.
What are the symptoms of hydrocephalus?
The symptoms of hydrocephalus often depend on the age of the affected person.
- Infants - Infants may have a larger-than-normal head, bulging area on the head, protruding veins in the scalp, drowsiness, seizures, and downcast eyes.
- Children and teens - Children and teens often experience symptoms such as vision difficulties, nausea, vomiting, balance issues, concentration difficulties, personality changes, seizures, and a slowing in their development.
- Adults - Adults with hydrocephalus commonly have symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, balance problems, trouble walking, urinary incontinence, visual difficulties, slowed cognition, and memory lapses.
Because symptoms can mimic other conditions, it's particularly important to see an experienced neurologist for an accurate diagnosis. For example, around 700,000 older adults may receive a diagnosis like Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease when they actually have hydrocephalus, which is treatable.
How is hydrocephalus treated?
Hydrocephalus treatment usually involves placing a shunt, a tube that drains excess cerebrospinal fluid from the brain.
Another option for some people with hydrocephalus is an endoscopic third ventriculostomy, a procedure to create a new drainage hole within or between ventricles.