sailor girlHydrocephalus Fact Sheet

What is hydrocephalus?

  • What causes hydrocephalus?
  • How is hydrocephalus treated?
  • What are the effects of hydrocephalus?

  • What is Hydrocephalus?

    Hydrocephalus comes from the Greek: hydro means water, cephalus head. Hydrocephalus is an abnormal accumulation of fluid - cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF - within cavities called ventricles inside the brain. CSF is produced in the ventricles, circulates through the ventricular system and is absorbed into the bloodstream. CSF is in constant circulation and has many important functions. It surrounds the brain and spinal cord and acts as a protective cushion against injury. CSF contains nutrients and proteins that are needed for the nourishment and normal function of the brain. It also carries waste products away from surrounding tissues. Hydrocephalus occurs when there is an imbalance between the amount of CSF that is produced and the rate at which it is absorbed. As the CSF builds up, it causes the ventricles to enlarge and the pressure inside the head to increase.

    What Causes Hydrocephalus?

    Hydrocephalus that is congenital (present at birth) is thought to be caused by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Aqueductal stenosis, an obstruction of the cerebral aqueduct, is the most frequent cause of congenital hydrocephalus. Acquired hydrocephalus may result from spina bifida, intraventricular hemorrhage, meningitis, head trauma, tumors and cysts. Hydrocephalus affects about one in every 500 children born.

    How is Hydrocephalus Treated?

    There is no known way to prevent or cure hydrocephalus. To date, the most effective treatment is surgical insertion of a shunt. A shunt is a flexible tube placed into the ventricular system of the brain which diverts the flow of CSF into another region of the body, most often the abdominal cavity or a chamber of the heart, where it can be absorbed. A valve within the shunt maintains the CSF at normal pressure within the ventricles. This procedure is performed by a neurosurgeon, preferably one who specializes in pediatrics if the patient is a child.

    What are the Effects of Hydrocephalus?

    Since the advent of shunting over forty years ago, the outcome for most children with hydrocephalus is optimistic. Some children with hydrocephalus will have less than normal intelligence, physical disabilities and a variety of other medical problems. Shunt malfunctions and infections, developmental delays, learning disabilities and visual problems are not uncommon. Families need to be aware of the life long complexities of hydrocephalus to insure their children receive comprehensive on-going care and appropriate intervention services and therapies.

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