mother and babyHydrocephaly or hydrocephalus was once called water on the brain. That water is cerebrospinal fluid used by the brain for hydration, protection, nutrition and waste removal. Hydrocephaly is a condition that can present at birth or develop at any time in life when associated with injury or illness.

Risk Factors

Congenital hydrocephaly – hydrocephaly present a birth – is commonly associated with a birth defect or developmental problem occurring in utero. Head measurements are taken at birth and at every well visit to monitor growth, but the measurements are also useful in the early detection of hydrocephaly. It is estimated that about two in 1,000 newborns are affected by the condition.

Acquired hydrocephaly develops after birth and may be associated with injury of illness. Infants who develop hydrocephaly after birth are diagnosed with acquired hydrocephaly as opposed to congenital hydrocephaly.


The most common symptom of hydrocephaly in infants is an enlarged head. Other symptoms may include:


  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Sleepiness
  • Blurred Vision
  • Developmental Delays
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Double Vision
  • Balance Problems

Some symptoms of hydrocephaly require input from the patient. Infants have no means of giving such input, which is why head circumference measurements are extremely important.


If left untreated or if treatments are not effective, hydrocephaly can lead to developmental delay, brain damage and death.

Testing and Diagnosis

In cases of congenital hydrocephaly, ultrasound often gives the first indication of a problem as images show excess cerebrospinal fluid buildup. If the condition develops after birth but during infancy, head circumference measurements show signs of abnormal head growth. In adults, the condition is commonly diagnosed after injury or complaint of symptoms associated with hydrocephaly as the plates of the skull are fused preventing changes in head circumference. Excessive cerebrospinal fluid thus places pressure on the brain rather than expanding the skull.
Diagnostic tests may include:

  • CT Scan – Computed Tomography Scan
  • MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Spinal Tap

Hydrocephaly is commonly treated with the placement of a shunt. A shunt is used to drain cerebrospinal fluid from the space around the brain to another part of the body where is can be safely absorbed into the bloodstream. The shunt system is required for life and may need to be altered via surgery several times as the patient grows. If there is a blockage causing a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid, surgery may be required to remove the blockage.


The prognosis for infants, children and adults with hydrocephaly is dependent on various factors, including the cause of the hydrocephaly. With early detection and treatment, the prognosis is good though some children may suffer language and learning delays.

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