Hydrocephalus is a brain disorder that typically occurs in children. It is an excess of fluid in the brain which builds up because of an obstruction that prevents proper drainage. The fluid build-up can compress surrounding brain tissue, causing brain damage. If left untreated, hydrocephalus can be fatal.
Once known as “water on the brain,” this disorder is sometimes present at birth, although it also may develop later. 1 out of 500 children are born with the disorder. Its outlook depends on how quickly the condition is diagnosed and whether any underlying disorders are present.
Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary by age group and the progression of the disease. In infants, common symptoms include: an unusually large head, a rapid increase in the size of the head, a bulging “soft spot” on top of the head, vomiting, sleepiness, irritability, seizures, eyes fixed downward and development delay. For older children and adults, symptoms include headache followed by vomiting, nausea, blurred or double vision, eyes fixed downward, problems with balance and coordination, sluggishness or lack of energy, memory loss, confusing, urinary incontinence, irritability, changes in personality and impaired performance in school or work. It is very important to see a doctor when experiencing any, or especially a combination of these symptoms.
The exact cause for hydrocephalus is unknown. However, risk factors include severe bleeding within the ventricles of the brain, an infection within the uterus and problems in fetal development, lesions or tumors of the brain or spinal cord, central nervous system infections and severe head injury.
In infants, hydrocephalus is usually diagnosed during gestation as part of a routine prenatal ultrasound, or during infancy when the head is regularly measured as part of growth monitoring. For children and adults, hydrocephalus is diagnosed through a careful medical history examination, a physical and neurological examination, a computerized tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Hydrocephalus is treated with surgical procedures such as shunt placement or ventriculostomy. Shunt placement consists of a long flexible tube with a valve that keeps fluid from the brain flowing in the right direction and at the proper rate. It moves excess fluids from the brain to another part of the body where it can be more easily absorbed, such as the abdomen. A ventriculostomy is a procedure where a surgeon makes a hole in the bottom of one of the brain ventricles to allow the fluids to flow toward the base of the brain, where normal absorption occurs.