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The term hydrocephalus is derived from two words: “hydro” meaning water, and “cephalus” referring to the head.

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) builds up within the ventricles (fluid-containing cavities) of the brain and may increase pressure within the head. Although hydrocephalus is often described as “water on the brain,” the “water” is actually CSF, a clear fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. CSF has three crucial functions: 1) it acts as a “shock absorber” for the brain and spinal cord; 2) it acts as a vehicle for delivering nutrients to the brain and removing waste; and 3) it flows between the cranium and spine to regulate changes in pressure within the brain. Hydrocephalus can occur at any age, but is most common in infants and adults age 60 and older. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, hydrocephalus is believed to affect approximately one in every 500 children. The majority of these cases are often diagnosed before birth, at the time of delivery, or in early childhood.

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The term hydrocephalus is derived from two words: “hydro” meaning water, and “cephalus” referring to the head.

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) builds up within the ventricles (fluid-containing cavities) of the brain and may increase pressure within the head. Although hydrocephalus is often described as “water on the brain,” the “water” is actually CSF, a clear fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. CSF has three crucial functions: 1) it acts as a “shock absorber” for the brain and spinal cord; 2) it acts as a vehicle for delivering nutrients to the brain and removing waste; and 3) it flows between the cranium and spine to regulate changes in pressure within the brain. Hydrocephalus can occur at any age, but is most common in infants and adults age 60 and older. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, hydrocephalus is believed to affect approximately one in every 500 children. The majority of these cases are often diagnosed before birth, at the time of delivery, or in early childhood.

Common Causes of Hydrocephalus

Although rare, hydrocephalus can be inherited genetically or may be associated with developmental disorders, including spina bifida (congenital defect of the spine) and encephalocele (hernia of the brain). Other causes can include bleeding within the brain, brain tumors, head injuries, complications of premature birth such as hemorrhage, or diseases such as meningitis or other infections. In some cases, normal flow of CSF within the brain is blocked, resulting in fluid build-up.

Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary greatly from person to person. According to the Hydrocephalus Association, some of the most common symptoms are listed below as a reference.

Symptoms of Hydrocephalus in infants

Abnormal enlargement of the head; soft spot (fontanel) is tense and bulging; scalp can appear thin; bones separated in baby’s head; prominent scalp veins; vomiting; drowsiness; irritability; downward deviation of baby’s eyes; seizures; or poor appetite.

Symptoms of Hydrocephalus in toddlers/children

Abnormal enlargement of baby’s head; headache; nausea; vomiting; fever; blurred or double vision; unstable balance; irritability; sleepiness; delayed progress in walking or talking; poor coordination; change in personality; inability to concentrate; loss of sensory motor functions; seizures; or poor appetite. Older children may experience difficulty in remaining awake or waking up. If the hydrocephalus is slow and long-standing some children can have delay in their developmental milestones or poor learning in school.

Symptoms of Hydrocephalus in young and middle-aged adults

Headache; difficulty in remaining awake or waking up; loss of coordination or balance; bladder control problems; impaired vision and cognitive skills that may affect job performance and personal skills.

Symptoms of Hydrocephalus in older adults

Loss of coordination or balance; shuffling gait, memory loss; headache; or bladder control problems. Hydrocephalus is often categorized for age groups as either congenital or normal pressure hydrocephalus. Congenital hydrocephalus refers to conditions that are caused by conditions existing at birth. Primary symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid that causes the ventricles in the brain to become enlarged, with little or no increase in pressure. Adult-onset NPH mainly occurs in adults age 60 and older. Patients with NPH often get misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, as some of the symptoms mimic these two conditions.

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