What is Hydrocephaly?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2019
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Hydrocephaly is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain that puts pressure on the brain and leads to medical complications. This condition is also known as hydrocephalus and it can be congenital or acquired. Treatment requires the services of a neurosurgeon and can include neurologists, physical therapists, and other allied health professionals to guide a patient through treatment and recovery. The prognosis is quite variable, depending on the cause, the extent of the hydrocephaly, and other factors.

This condition occurs when the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid is disrupted. The body may produce too much, or it may drain inadequately from the ventricles of the brain. Conditions like cerebral hemorrhages can also lead to the development of hydrocephaly by introducing fluid into the skull and causing an increase in pressure that cannot be alleviated.

In cases of congenital hydrocephaly, the condition is usually caused by a congenital anomaly that allows CSF to build up in the brain. The baby may be born with an enlarged head or the head may grow unusually quickly, indicating that the pressure is forcing the young skull to expand to accommodate it. Acquired hydrocephaly caused by injuries, tumors, hemorrhages, and other problems will not cause the head to expand because the sutures of the skull have already fused.


People with hydrocephaly can have symptoms like headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, seizures, and coma. A medical imaging study of the brain will reveal the buildup of fluid. Left untreated, the condition can lead to death, as pressure on the brain causes death of brain tissue. Treatment requires inserting a shunt to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure, and addressing the underlying causes of the problem, often with surgery.

Some people with hydrocephaly recover without any ill effects. Others may develop learning disabilities and other neurological impairments as a result of the damage to the brain. Attending physical and occupational therapy can help such patients develop skills to compensate for the brain damage. In some notable case studies, the buildup of fluid has occurred so gradually over time that the hydrocephaly was not identified, and the brain had time to adapt to the pressure. The brain is a remarkably resilient organ and in the case of one French patient, so much fluid was present that the brain was reduced to a thin layer of functional tissue inside the skull, but the patient lived a perfectly ordinary life.



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