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Title: Hydrocephalus  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Arachnoid cyst, Spina bifida, Syringomyelia, Shaken baby syndrome, Congenital disorder
Collection: Congenital Disorders of Nervous System, Disorders Causing Seizures, Pediatrics
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Hydrocephalus seen on a CT scan of the brain. The black areas in the middle of the brain are abnormally large and filled with fluid.
Classification and external resources
Specialty Neurosurgery
ICD-10 G91, Q03
ICD-9-CM 331.3, 331.4, 741.0, 742.3
DiseasesDB 6123
MedlinePlus 001571
eMedicine neuro/161
MeSH D006849

Hydrocephalus (from Greek hydro-, meaning "water", and kephalos, meaning "head") is a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. This causes increased intracranial pressure inside the skull and may cause progressive enlargement of the head if it occurs in childhood, potentially causing convulsion, tunnel vision, and mental disability. It was once informally called "Water on the brain."[1]

Hydrocephalus can be caused by congenital or acquired factors. Congenital causes include Spina Bifida, Arnold–Chiari malformation, craniosynostosis, Dandy–Walker syndrome, and Vein of Galen malformations. Acquired causes include hemorrhage, meningitis, head trauma, tumors, and cysts.

Two types of hydrocephalus are commonly described non-communicating hydrocephalus and communicating hydrocephalus, although there is evidence that communicating forms can lead to obstruction of CSF flow in many instances.

In non-communicating hydrocephalus, the CSF in the ventricles can not reach the subarachnoid space. This results from obstruction of interventricular foramina, cerebral aqueduct, or the outflow foramens of the fourth ventricle (median and lateral apertures). The most common obstruction is in the cerebral aqueduct. A block at any of these sites leads rapidly to dilatation of one or more ventricles. If the skull is still pliable, as it is in children younger than 2 years, the head may enlarge.

In communicating hydrocephalus, the obstruction of CSF flow is in the subarachnoid space from prior bleeding or meningitis. This causes thickening of the arachnoid leading to blockage of the return-flow channels. In some patients, the spaces filled by CSF are uniformly enlarged without an increase in intercranial pressure. This special form of communicating hydrocephalus is called normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), which results specifically from impaired CSF reabsorption at the arachnoid granulations. NPH's clinical manifestations are gait abnormality, dementia, and involuntary urination. NPH usually occurs in elderly patients.


  • Signs and symptoms 1
  • Type 2
    • Communicating 2.1
    • Non-communicating 2.2
  • Causes 3
    • Congenital 3.1
    • Acquired 3.2
  • Mechanism 4
  • Treatment 5
    • Shunt complication 5.1
    • Developing countries 5.2
  • History 6
  • Society and culture 7
    • Awareness campaign 7.1
    • Exceptional case 7.2
    • Notable cases 7.3
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Signs and symptoms

Illustration showing different effects of hydrocephalus on the brain and cranium.

The clinical presentation of hydrocephalus varies with chronicity. Acute dilatation of the ventricular system is more likely to manifest with the nonspecific signs and symptoms of increased intracranial pressure. By contrast chronic dilatation (especially in the elderly population) may have a more insidious onset presenting, for instance, with Hakim's triad (Adams triad).

Symptoms of increased intracranial pressure may include headaches, vomiting, nausea, papilledema, sleepiness or coma. Elevated intracranial pressure may result in uncal and/or cerebellar tonsill herniation, with resulting life-threatening brain stem compression.

Hakim's triad of gait instability, urinary incontinence and dementia is a relatively typical manifestation of the distinct entity normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). Focal neurological deficits may also occur, such as abducens nerve palsy and vertical gaze palsy (Parinaud syndrome due to compression of the quadrigeminal plate, where the neural centers coordinating the conjugated vertical eye movement are located). The symptoms depend on the cause of the blockage, the person's age, and how much brain tissue has been damaged by the swelling.

In infants with hydrocephalus, CSF builds up in the central nervous system, causing the fontanelle (soft spot) to bulge and the head to be larger than expected. Early symptoms may also include:

  • Eyes that appear to gaze downward;
  • Irritability;
  • Seizures;
  • Separated sutures;
  • Sleepiness;
  • Vomiting.

Symptoms that may occur in older children can include:

  • Brief, shrill, high-pitched cry;
  • Changes in personality, memory, or the ability to reason or think;
  • Changes in facial appearance and eye spacing;
  • Crossed eyes or uncontrolled eye movements;
  • Difficulty feeding;
  • Excessive sleepiness;
  • Headache;
  • Irritability, poor temper control;
  • Loss of bladder control (urinary incontinence);
  • Loss of coordination and trouble walking;
  • Muscle spasticity (spasm);
  • Slow growth (child 0–5 years);
  • Slow or restricted movement;
  • Vomiting .[2]

Because hydrocephalus can injure the brain, thought and behavior may be adversely affected. Learning disabilities including short-term memory loss are common among those with hydrocephalus, who tend to score better on verbal IQ than on performance IQ, which is thought to reflect the distribution of nerve damage to the brain. However the severity of hydrocephalus can differ considerably between individuals and some are of average or above-average intelligence. Someone with hydrocephalus may have motion and visual problems, problems with coordination, or may be clumsy. They may reach puberty earlier than the average child (see precocious puberty). About one in four develops epilepsy.


The cause of hydrocephalus is not known with certainty and is probably multifactorial. It may be caused by impaired cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flow, reabsorption, or excessive CSF production.

Based on its underlying mechanisms, hydrocephalus can be classified into communicating and non-communicating (obstructive). Both forms can be either congenital or acquired.


Communicating hydrocephalus, also known as non-obstructive hydrocephalus, is caused by impaired cerebrospinal fluid reabsorption in the absence of any CSF-flow obstruction between the ventricles and subarachnoid space. It has been theorized that this is due to functional impairment of the arachnoidal granulations (also called arachnoid granulations or Pacchioni's granulations), which are located along the superior sagittal sinus and is the site of cerebrospinal fluid reabsorption back into the venous system. Various neurologic conditions may result in communicating hydrocephalus, including subarachnoid/intraventricular hemorrhage, meningitis and congenital absence of arachnoid villi. Scarring and fibrosis of the subarachnoid space following infectious, inflammatory, or hemorrhagic events can also prevent resorption of CSF, causing diffuse ventricular dilatation.

  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a particular form of communicating hydrocephalus, characterized by enlarged cerebral ventricles, with only intermittently elevated cerebrospinal fluid pressure. The diagnosis of NPH can be established only with the help of continuous intraventricular pressure recordings (over 24 hours or even longer), since more often than not instant measurements yield normal pressure values. Dynamic compliance studies may be also helpful. Altered compliance (elasticity) of the ventricular walls, as well as increased viscosity of the cerebrospinal fluid, may play a role in the pathogenesis of normal pressure hydrocephalus.
  • Hydrocephalus ex vacuo also refers to an enlargement of cerebral ventricles and subarachnoid spaces, and is usually due to brain atrophy (as it occurs in dementias), post-traumatic brain injuries and even in some psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. As opposed to hydrocephalus, this is a compensatory enlargement of the CSF-spaces in response to brain parenchyma loss - it is not the result of increased CSF pressure.


Non-communicating hydrocephalus, or obstructive hydrocephalus, is caused by a CSF-flow obstruction.



The cranial bones fuse by the end of the third year of life. For head enlargement to occur, hydrocephalus must occur before then. The causes are usually genetic but can also be acquired and usually occur within the first few months of life, which include 1) intraventricular matrix hemorrhages in premature infants, 2) infections, 3) type II Arnold-Chiari malformation, 4) aqueduct atresia and stenosis, and 5) Dandy-Walker malformation.

In newborns and toddlers with hydrocephalus, the head circumference is enlarged rapidly and soon surpasses the 97th percentile. Since the skull bones have not yet firmly joined together, bulging, firm anterior and posterior fontanelles may be present even when the patient is in an upright position.

The infant exhibits fretfulness, poor feeding, and frequent vomiting. As the hydrocephalus progresses, torpor sets in, and the infant shows lack of interest in his surroundings. Later on, the upper eyelids become retracted and the eyes are turned downwards ("sunset eyes") (due to hydrocephalic pressure on the mesencephalic tegmentum and paralysis of upward gaze). Movements become weak and the arms may become tremulous. Papilledema is absent but there may be reduction of vision. The head becomes so enlarged that the child may eventually be bedridden.

About 80-90% of fetuses or newborn infants with spina bifida—often associated with meningocele or myelomeningocele—develop hydrocephalus.[5]


This condition is acquired as a consequence of CNS infections, meningitis, brain tumors, head trauma, intracranial hemorrhage (subarachnoid or intraparenchymal) and is usually extremely painful.


Hydrocephalus is usually due to blockage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) outflow in the ventricles or in the subarachnoid space over the brain. In a person without hydrocephalus, CSF continuously circulates through the brain, its ventricles and the spinal cord and is continuously drained away into the circulatory system. Alternatively, the condition may result from an overproduction of the CSF, from a congenital malformation blocking normal drainage of the fluid, or from complications of head injuries or infections.[6]

Compression of the brain by the accumulating fluid eventually may cause neurological symptoms such as convulsions, intellectual disability and epileptic seizures. These signs occur sooner in adults, whose skulls are no longer able to expand to accommodate the increasing fluid volume within. Fetuses, infants, and young children with hydrocephalus typically have an abnormally large head, excluding the face, because the pressure of the fluid causes the individual skull bones — which have yet to fuse — to bulge outward at their juncture points. Another medical sign, in infants, is a characteristic fixed downward gaze with whites of the eyes showing above the iris, as though the infant were trying to examine its own lower eyelids.[7]

Spontaneous intracerebral and intraventricular hemorrhage with hydrocephalus shown on CT scan[8]

The elevated intracranial pressure may cause compression of the brain, leading to brain damage and other complications. Conditions among affected individuals vary widely.

If the foramina of the fourth ventricle or the cerebral aqueduct are blocked, cereobrospinal fluid (CSF) can accumulate within the ventricles. This condition is called internal hydrocephalus and it results in increased CSF pressure. The production of CSF continues, even when the passages that normally allow it to exit the brain are blocked. Consequently, fluid builds inside the brain, causing pressure that dilates the ventricles and compresses the nervous tissue. Compression of the nervous tissue usually results in irreversible brain damage. If the skull bones are not completely ossified when the hydrocephalus occurs, the pressure may also severely enlarge the head. The cerebral aqueduct may be blocked at the time of birth or may become blocked later in life because of a tumor growing in the brainstem.

Internal hydrocephalus can be successfully treated by placing a drainage tube (shunt) between the brain ventricles and abdominal cavity to eliminate the high intracranial pressure. There is some risk of infection being introduced into the brain through these shunts, however, and the shunts must be replaced as the person grows. A subarachnoid hemorrhage may block the return of CSF to the circulation.

This should be distinguished from external hydrocephalus. This is a condition generally seen in infants and involving enlarged fluid spaces or subarachnoid spaces around the outside of the brain. This is generally a benign condition that resolves spontaneously by 2 years of age. (Greenberg, Handbook of Neurosurgery, 5th Edition, pg 174).[9] Imaging studies and a good medical history can help to differentiate external hydrocephalus from subdural hemorrhages or symptomatic chronic extra-axial fluid collections which are accompanied by vomiting, headaches and seizures.


Baby recovering from surgery

Hydrocephalus treatment is surgical, generally utilizing various types of cerebral shunts. It involves the placement of a ventricular catheter (a tube made of silastic), into the cerebral ventricles to bypass the flow obstruction/malfunctioning arachnoidal granulations and drain the excess fluid into other body cavities, from where it can be resorbed. Most shunts drain the fluid into the peritoneal cavity (ventriculo-peritoneal shunt), but alternative sites include the right atrium (ventriculo-atrial shunt), pleural cavity (ventriculo-pleural shunt), and gallbladder. A shunt system can also be placed in the lumbar space of the spine and have the CSF redirected to the peritoneal cavity (Lumbar-peritoneal shunt).[10] An alternative treatment for obstructive hydrocephalus in selected patients is the endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV), whereby a surgically created opening in the floor of the third ventricle allows the CSF to flow directly to the basal cisterns, thereby shortcutting any obstruction, as in aqueductal stenosis. This may or may not be appropriate based on individual anatomy.

Shunt complication

Examples of possible complications include shunt malfunction, shunt failure, and shunt infection, along with infection of the shunt tract following surgery (the most common reason for shunt failure is infection of the shunt tract). Although a shunt generally works well, it may stop working if it disconnects, becomes blocked (clogged), infected, or it is outgrown. If this happens the cerebrospinal fluid will begin to accumulate again and a number of physical symptoms will develop (headaches, nausea, vomiting, photophobia/light sensitivity), some extremely serious, like seizures. The shunt failure rate is also relatively high (of the 40,000 surgeries performed annually to treat hydrocephalus, only 30% are a patient's first surgery) and it is not uncommon for patients to have multiple shunt revisions within their lifetime.

Another complication can occur when CSF drains more rapidly than it is produced by the choroid plexus, causing symptoms -listlessness, severe headaches, irritability, light sensitivity, auditory hyperesthesia (sound sensitivity), nausea, vomiting, dizziness, vertigo, migraines, seizures, a change in personality, weakness in the arms or legs, strabismus, and double vision - to appear when the patient is vertical. If the patient lies down, the symptoms usually vanish quickly. A CT scan may or may not show any change in ventricle size, particularly if the patient has a history of slit-like ventricles. Difficulty in diagnosing overdrainage can make treatment of this complication particularly frustrating for patients and their families. Resistance to traditional analgesic pharmacological therapy may also be a sign of shunt overdrainage or failure.

The diagnosis of cerebrospinal fluid buildup is complex and requires specialist expertise. Diagnosis of the particular complication usually depends on when the symptoms appear - that is, whether symptoms occur when the patient is upright or in a prone position, with the head at roughly the same level as the feet.

Developing countries

Because the shunt systems are too expensive for most people in developing countries, such people often die without getting a shunt. Worse, the rate of revision in shunt systems adds to the cost of shunting many times. Looking at this point, a study done by Dr. Benjamin C. Warf compares shunt systems and highlights the role of low-cost shunt systems in most of the developing countries. This study was published in Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics May 2005 issue.[11] It compares the Chhabra shunt system to shunt systems from developed countries. The study was done in Uganda and the shunts were donated by the International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.


Skull of a hydrocephalic child (1800s)

References to hydrocephalic skulls can be found in ancient Egyptian medical literature from 2500 BC to 500 AD.[12] Hydrocephalus was described more clearly by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates in the 4th century BC, while a more accurate description was later given by the Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century AD.[12]

The first clinical description of an operative procedure for hydrocephalus appears in the Al-Tasrif (1000 AD) by the Arab surgeon, Abulcasis, who clearly described the evacuation of superficial intracranial fluid in hydrocephalic children.[12] He described it in his chapter on neurosurgical disease, describing infantile hydrocephalus as being caused by mechanical compression. He wrote:[12]

"The skull of a newborn baby is often full of liquid, either because the matron has compressed it excessively or for other, unknown reasons. The volume of the skull then increases daily, so that the bones of the skull fail to close. In this case, we must open the middle of the skull in three places, make the liquid flow out, then close the wound and tighten the skull with a bandage."
Preserved corpse of a newborn with an enlarged head
Historical specimen of an infant with severe hydrocephalus, probably untreated

In 1881, a few years after the landmark study of Retzius and Key, Carl Wernicke pioneered sterile ventricular puncture and external drainage of cerebrospinal fluid for the treatment of hydrocephalus.[12] It remained an intractable condition until the 20th century, when shunts and other neurosurgical treatment modalities were developed.

It is a lesser-known medical condition; relatively little research is conducted to improve treatment, and there is still no cure. In developing countries, the condition often goes untreated at birth. Before birth, the condition is difficult to diagnose, and there is limited access to medical treatment. However, when head swelling is prominent, children are taken at great expense for treatment. By then, brain tissue is undeveloped and neurosurgery is rare and difficult. Children more commonly live with undeveloped brain tissue and consequential intellectual disability.

Society and culture

Awareness campaign

Hydrocephalus awareness ribbon

September was designated National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month in July, 2009 by the U.S. Congress in HR373. The Resolution campaign is due in part to the Advocacy work of the Pediatric Hydrocephalus Foundation, Inc. Prior to July 2009, there was no Awareness month for this condition. Many of the hydrocephalus organizations within the United States use various ribbon designs as a part of their awareness and fundraising activities.

Exceptional case

One interesting case of hydrocephalus was a man whose brain shrank to a thin sheet of tissue, due to buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in his skull. As a child, the man had a shunt, but it was removed when he was 14. In July 2007, at age 44, he went to a hospital due to mild weakness in his left leg. When doctors learned of the man's medical history, they performed a computed tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and were astonished to see "massive enlargement" of the lateral ventricles in the skull. Dr. Lionel Feuillet of Hôpital de la Timone in Marseille said, "The images were most unusual... the brain was virtually absent."[13] Intelligence tests showed the patient had an IQ of 75, below the average score of 100. This would be considered "borderline intellectual functioning", just above what would be officially considered mentally challenged.

The patient was a married father of two children, and worked as a civil servant, leading an at least superficially normal life, despite having enlarged ventricles with a decreased volume of brain tissue. "What I find amazing to this day is how the brain can deal with something which you think should not be compatible with life", commented Dr. Max Muenke, a pediatric brain defect specialist at the National Human Genome Research Institute. "If something happens very slowly over quite some time, maybe over decades, the different parts of the brain take up functions that would normally be done by the part that is pushed to the side."[14][1]

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