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Hydrocephalus – one of the most common birth defects – affects one out of every 500 births results each year.*
*Source: National Hydrocephalus Foundation

Hydrocephalus Overview

Hydrocephalus  is a condition characterized by excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain. The term is derived from the Greek words for water and head. The fluid is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Causes are not well understood but the result is an imbalance between the amount of CSF produced by the body and the amount absorbed into the bloodstream. Buildup of excess CSF causes widening of spaces in the brain called ventricles. This can create potentially harmful pressure on the tissues of the brain.

There is no known way to prevent or cure the condition. However, according to the National Hydrocephalus Foundation death rates associated have decreased from 54 percent to five percent in the past 25+ years.

CSF serves many purposes. It acts as a “shock absorber” for the brain and spinal cord. It is a delivery system for nutrients to the brain and removes waste. And it helps regulate changes in pressure within the brain.

Although the condition can affect people of all ages, hydrocephalus is most common in infants and in adults 60 and older. Most cases are diagnosed before birth (through an ultrasound), at the time of delivery or in early childhood.

Symptoms can mimic those of other conditions including Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Your WellStar neurologist will use a variety of methods to determine if the symptoms are those of hydrocephalus or another condition.

Prompt and accurate diagnosis is critically important because the condition may worsen over time if it not properly treated. Early diagnosis and treatment improve the chance of a successful, long-term recovery.

Hydrocephalus Symptoms

Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary according to the patient’s age, disease progression and individual responses.

In an infant, symptoms include the presence of a tense, bulging soft spot on the head, rapid increase in head circumference and an unusually large-sized head. Other symptoms include vomiting, irritability, sleepiness, defects in muscle tone and strength, seizures and a downward slant of the eyes known as “sun setting.”

In toddlers and older children symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Delays in walking or talking
  • Problems with previously acquired skills (like walking and talking)
  • Balance and coordination problems
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Changes in personality
  • Problems with attention
  • Poor appetite
  • Difficulty waking up or staying awake

If young children exhibit any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical care:

  • High-pitched cry
  • Sucking or feeding problems
  • Recurrent vomiting
  • Unwilling to move the head or neck
  • Breathing problems
  • Seizures

In adults look for symptoms including:

  • Headache
  • Difficulty waking up or staying awake
  • Balance and coordination problems
  • Bladder control problems
  • Impaired vision
  • Problems with memory, concentration or thinking skills

Older adults with hydrocephalus may experience symptoms such as:

  • Bladder control problems
  • Loss of memory and other thinking skills
  • Difficulty walking (shuffling gait)
  • Slowed movements

Risk Factors

While the causes of hydrocephalus are not well understood, certain conditions and medical problems increase the chance of getting it.

Newborn risk factors include:

  • Inherited genetic abnormalities (including spina bifida) that can obstruct the flow of CSF. Genetic counseling may be recommended to discuss the possibility of recurrence in future pregnancies.
  • Complications of premature birth.
  • Certain infections (rubella, syphilis) in the mother’s uterus during pregnancy that cause inflammation in fetal brain tissue.

Rick factors for all age groups:


  • Certain tumors of the brain or spinal cord
  • Infections of the central nervous system (including meningitis and mumps)
  • Bleeding in the brain from stroke or head injury
  • Traumatic brain injury or hemorrhage that block the exit of cerebrospinal fluid

Related Information

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