What Is Hydrocephalus? Its Causes, Symptoms & Treatment Options

Hydrocephalus pertains to disorder of brain. The condition is characterized by abnormal enlargement of brain cavities called ventricles. Our brain contains small spaces called ventricles which are filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is formed in these ventricles. CSF continuously circulates in the brain and spinal cord.

The main function of cerebrospinal fluid is to provide cushion and nutrients to cells in the brain and spinal cord. It is then absorbed back in the blood stream.

Normally this physiological process goes on continuously and the balance of fluid is maintained. However, the fluid can build up under certain circumstances and create abnormal pressure in the ventricles and brain tissue.

This is known as hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus notably enlarges the head. Increased pressure if left untreated can damage the brain and even result in death.

What Are The Causes Of Hydrocephalus?

The factors causing Hydrocephalus are:

  • Congenital defect: In majority of cases, infants are born with hydrocephalus. It is a congenital defect. For congenital hydrocephalus no specific cause has been determined, but it is believed to be due to chromosomal defect. Secondly it can be a consequence of conditions such as spina bifida. Spina bifida is a defect in the spinal cord.
  • Acquired hydrocephalus: It can also be an acquired condition after the birth.
    A tumor in the brain, premature birth causing hemorrhage in the ventricles, infective conditions such as meningitis, or trauma to the brain and spinal cord can cause hydrocephalus. Infection in the mother such as rubella and syphilis can cause inflammation in the fetus brain.

Signs And Symptoms Of Hydrocephalus In Babies

The symptoms of hydrocephalus may depend on the age of the child.

In new born infants, the presenting symptoms can be as follows:

  • Abnormal enlargement of head in all dimensions.
  • Head size increases rapidly.
  • There is wide gaping between the fontanels (joints of the skull). It becomes tense.
  • The brow bulges.
  • Scalp becomes shiny and the veins of scalp dilate, they become more prominent.
  • Infant sleeps for a prolonged period of time than usual.
  • Fails to thrive and high pitched cry.
  • Vomiting and convulsions.

Presenting symptoms in older children:

In older children the bulging soft spot on the head may not be very obvious as it is in infants with hydrocephalus.

  • The child often complains of severe headache along with continuous vomiting and nausea.
  • The child may not be able to balance himself.
  • He finds difficulty in walking and standing.
  • Frequent urge to pass urine and incontinence.
  • There is disproportionate enlargement of head.
  • Slow and slurred speech
  • Raised irritability level
  • Blurred vision
  • Sleepiness
  • Weak memory

Treatment Options For Hydrocephalus

Once hydrocephalus is diagnosed, the treatment is aimed to eradicate the underlying cause. For example if the reason is due to infection such as meningitis, medication will heal the infection and resolve increased pressure in the brain.

Surgical approach may become necessary when there is an obstruction such as a tumor. An attempt is made to remove the tumor.

When the obstruction is too difficult to be removed, a catheter is inserted that allows the fluid to drain. It is also called as a shunt. There can be permanent shunt or a temporary. This depends on the reason of obstruction. The shunts have to be removed after a period of time and replaced with other tube.

In most cases the outcome is good if the condition is detected in its early stage.

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