Hydrocephalus

Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare is one of the nation’s Best Children’s Hospitals in pediatric neurology and neurosurgery. We offer comprehensive services for children, teens and adults who have hydrocephalus.

Often, hydrocephalus accompanies other conditions, such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy or traumatic brain injuries. Because we have integrated teams to treat these conditions in a family-centered environment, our Center for Pediatric Neurosciences can help patients achieve their highest possible levels of health, independence and happiness.

Why Choose Gillette?

  • Gillette is one of the nation’s Best Children’s Hospitals in pediatric neurology and neurosurgery.
  • We offer a team of experts who collaborate to provide comprehensive care and treatment.
  • Our facilities and technology are designed specifically for people who have hydrocephalus and related conditions.
  • We believe that children who have hydrocephalus deserve a lifetime of excellent health care—from birth through adulthood.

Hydrocephalus Definition and Types

Hydrocephalus (sometimes called “water on the brain”) occurs when too much cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) builds up in the ventricles of the brain, causing head enlargement and/or increased pressure inside the head and on the brain. Without treatment, hydrocephalus can cause damage to the brain or become life-threatening.

There are two types of hydrocephalus. Congenital hydrocephalus develops before birth. Acquired hydrocephalus develops after birth.


Hydrocephalus Incidence and Causes

Hydrocephalus occurs in about two of every 1,000 births.

Inside the brain, cavities called ventricles produce cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The fluid circulates around the brain and spinal cord, offering nourishment and protection. Normally, CSF drains from the brain into the spinal column, and the body absorbs the fluid into the bloodstream. Hydrocephalus occurs when there is a problem with that process, causing increased pressure as more fluid builds up in the brain than is absorbed.

Excess fluid occurs for one of three main reasons:

  • Obstruction: The most common cause of excess fluid in the brain is a partial obstruction between ventricles or among ventricles and other areas of the brain.
  • Poor absorption. A less common cause of excess fluid in the brain is poor absorption—often related to inflammation from diseases or injuries.
  • Overproduction. Rarely, the body produces more cerebrospinal fluid than it can absorb.

Hydrocephalus Risk Factors

Risk factors for hydrocephalus vary, depending on the type.

Congenital hydrocephalus

Genetic factors can influence the development of congenital hydrocephalus (hydrocephalus present at birth). Congenital hydrocephalus can occur along with other conditions associated with the brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida, Dandy-Walker complex, aqueductal stenosis, and other cerebral and spinal malformations. This type of hydrocephalus might also develop when an obstruction causes fluid to build up before birth.

Acquired hydrocephalus

Acquired hydrocephalus can develop after a brain hemorrhage, a traumatic brain injury, tumors, cysts or infections, such as meningitis. Premature babies are at greater risk for brain hemorrhages, which can lead to acquired hydrocephalus.


Hydrocephalus Symptoms and Effects

Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary with age.

Symptoms in Infants

In infants, the most obvious sign of hydrocephalus is an enlarged head. A baby’s fontanel (soft spot) might be tense or bulge. The skin on the head might appear thin, and the veins might look large and full. Feeling the infant’s head might reveal that the bones of the skull are separated. Other symptoms can include:

  • Downward deviation of the baby’s eyes
  • Feeding problems
  • Irritability
  • Sleepiness
  • Vomiting

Symptoms in Older Children

Older children won’t exhibit an enlarged head, because the bones of the skull have already closed and hardened. Rather, they will show symptoms of elevated pressure inside the head. The most common include:

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Delayed development
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Vomiting

Other concerning symptoms might include:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Declining school performance
  • Inability to concentrate or remember things
  • Irritability and personality changes

Some symptoms are immediately noticeable; others progress gradually.


Hydrocephalus Diagnosis and Tests

Ultrasonography often allows experts to diagnose congenital hydrocephalus before birth. In other cases, hydrocephalus is diagnosed at birth or shortly afterward. Less frequently, hydrocephalus is diagnosed in older children, teens and adults.

To diagnose hydrocephalus, doctors observe symptoms and use imaging technology such as:

  • Computed tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Ultrasonography

For more information about the tests and treatments we offer at Gillette, search Conditions and Care.


Hydrocephalus Treatments

There is no known way to prevent or cure hydrocephalus. Prompt treatment is necessary to avoid life-threatening complications.

Gillette neurosurgeons use the following approaches to address hydrocephalus:

For more information about the tests and treatments we offer at Gillette, search Conditions and Care.


Our Hydrocephalus Services

Because hydrocephalus requires lifelong management and care, we often begin seeing our patients as infants and continue providing comprehensive care throughout their lives.

A patient’s hydrocephalus team varies based on a patient’s needs. It can include experts in:

As our patients reach adulthood, we continue providing age-appropriate care through Gillette Lifetime Specialty Healthcare for teens (16 and older) and adults.

For more information about Gillette’s comprehensive services, search Conditions and Care.

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