Hydrocephalus is a condition caused by fluid build-up in the brain. Too much fluid creates pressure that can damage the brain.
What is hydrocephalus?
Hydrocephalus is when cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) accumulates in the brain.
Normally, CSF is made in the brain to cushion the brain, provide nutrients and remove toxins. It is removed from around the brain in a cycle. But CSF can build up if:
- the brain makes too much
- there is a blockage and it cannot drain properly
- it is not being absorbed into the bloodstream
Causes of hydrocephalus
If a child is born with hydrocephalus, it is called congenital hydrocephalus. This is usually caused by a problem in the CSF process when the baby’s brain is developing.
Another cause of hydrocephalus is spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the spine. Hydrocephalus can develop in children with spina bifida before or after they are born.
Symptoms of hydrocephalus
The most common symptoms of hydrocephalus are headache, nausea, vomiting and fits.
For babies, hydrocephalus can also cause:
- increased head size
- bulging or firm fontanelle, which is the soft spot on a baby’s head
- poor feeding
- drowsiness or sleepiness
- eye turning inwards
For older children or adults, hydrocephalus can also cause:
- blurred or double vision
- problems concentrating
- loss of coordination
Sometimes hydrocephalus can put pressure on the optic nerve in the eye. This can cause strabismus (where the eyes aren’t straight), gaze palsies (the person can’t move their eyes together upwards) or nystagmus (a rapid abnormal movement in the eyes).
Diagnosis of hydrocephalus
If someone has symptoms of hydrocephalus, tests can be done to check for extra fluid in the brain. They include:
- computerised tomography scan, or CT
- magnetic resonance imaging scan, or MRI
- lumbar puncture
Treatment of hydrocephalus
While often hydrocephalus can’t be cured, it can be controlled. Treatment aims to reduce pressure on the brain. The usual approach is surgery to place a fine tube called a shunt that helps drain the fluid.
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Last reviewed: June 2020