Hydrocephalus (Water on the Brain) Causes and Symptoms

What is Hydrocephalus (Water on the Brain)?

Hydrocephalus is sometimes known as “water on the brain,” but is more accurately described as a buildup 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. 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

How Common Is Hydrocephalus in Children?

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

What Causes Hydrocephalus (Water on the Brain)?

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

Causes of acquired hydrocephalus in children 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 in children 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.

Research and Clinical Studies

As a nationally recognized research center, UPMC Children’s Hospital’s Brain Care Institute participates in the latest clinical studies, which involve human volunteers and are intended to add to our medical understanding.