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Hydrocephalus

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Hydrocephalus is a relatively common condition that occurs in about one out of 500 births. At the Brain Care Institute of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, our neurosurgeons have developed expertise in treating this condition by shunt insertion and, when appropriate, using minimally invasive endoscopic procedures.

What is hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is sometimes known as “water on the brain,” but is more accurately described as a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that can cause pressure inside the head to increase. CSF normally flows through fluid-filled ventricles by way of openings that connect one ventricle to another. Eventually, the CSF reaches the surface of the brain and spinal cord, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. In order to maintain normal pressure, the production, flow, and absorption of CSF must be kept in balance. Therefore, hydrocephalus may occur when there is:

  • A blockage of CSF flow inside the head
  • Problems with the body absorbing CSF
  • An overproduction of CSF

What causes hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus can be present at birth (congenital), or it can be acquired later in life.

Causes of acquired hydrocephalus may include:

  • Abnormal blood vessel formation inside the head
  • Birth injury
  • Bleeding inside the head
  • Infection
  • Prematurity
  • Pseudotumor cerebri
  • Trauma
  • Tumors

What are the symptoms of hydrocephalus?

The symptoms of hydrocephalus may resemble other conditions or medical problems, so patients and their families should always consult a physician for a diagnosis. Each child may experience symptoms differently, but the most common symptoms of hydrocephalus in infants include:

  • A full or bulging fontanel (soft spot located on top of the head)
  • A high-pitched cry
  • An inability to look upward while the baby’s head is facing forward
  • Developmental delays
  • Increased irritability
  • Increasing head circumference
  • Poor feeding habits
  • Projectile vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness or lack of alertness
  • Very noticeable scalp veins

In older children, headaches and visual changes may be seen.

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Last Update
February 6, 2014
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