Sometimes called “water in the brain,” hydrocephalus is a condition caused by fluid accumulating in the brain, which can be dangerous because it puts too much pressure on the delicate brain tissue. Some people are born with hydrocephalus, whereas others develop it later in life. If you or your child has symptoms of this condition, you should see a doctor to find out what is wrong.

What Is Hydrocephalus?

A clear fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounds the spinal cord and brain. Hydrocephalus is a condition that occurs when too much of this fluid builds up, putting pressure on the brain.

In a healthy brain, CSF flows into reservoirs at the base of the brain, where it bathes the brain and spinal cord, delivering nutrients that the brain needs to function. It then absorbs into the blood. Hydrocephalus occurs when a medical problem stops the fluid flowing or absorbing properly.

Here are some useful terms for understanding this condition:

  • CSF: Cerebrospinal fluid, which delivers nutrients, removes waste, and cushions the brain.

Stages and Types

These are some common forms of hydrocephalus:

  • Congenital hydrocephalus: Present at birth.
  • Acquired hydrocephalus: Develops after birth, can be caused by an injury or an illness.
  • Communicating hydrocephalus: Fluid flows freely between tiny spaces in the brain called ventricles, but doesn't reabsorb correctly.
  • Non-communicating hydrocephalus: Something blocks the flow between the ventricles.
  • Hydrocephalus ex vacuo: Develops after a stroke or injury causes brain tissue to shrink.
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH): The amount of CSF in the brain increases abnormally, although the cause is not always apparent.

Symptoms and Causes

Here are some of the main symptoms of hydrocephalus:

  • A headache followed by vomiting
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Drowsiness and lethargy
  • Memory Loss

In addition to these symptoms, babies may also have a noticeably swollen head, which happens because babies’ skulls can expand when they contain too much CSF, whereas adult skulls cannot.

There are many possible causes of hydrocephalus. Some babies have it at birth because of faulty genes and others because some part of their body doesn’t develop correctly in the womb. Adults and children can develop hydrocephalus after a disease that affects the brain like meningitis, a head injury, or a stroke.

Prevention and Risks

One or two babies out of every thousand are born with hydrocephalus. NPH also affects around 375,000 older Americans.

Sometimes, hydrocephalus occurs after an injury. Therefore, wearing a helmet while playing sports, riding a bicycle or motorbike, or doing other activities that can lead to a head injury could be a good way to reduce your risk of developing this condition.

Diagnosis and Tests

Doctors use medical scans to diagnose hydrocephalus. Here are some tests your doctor might order:

  • CT (or CAT) Scan: You lie inside a large scanner, which uses X-rays to take detailed pictures of your brain.
  • MRI Scan: Again, you lie inside a large tube, but this time, the machine uses magnets and radio waves to create a picture of your brain.
  • Pressure Monitoring: A doctor inserts a tiny catheter into your skull to monitor the pressure of the fluid in your brain.

In addition to these tests, your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and ask about your medical history. He or she will want to know about any abnormalities in your brain or spinal cord.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

The most common treatment for hydrocephalus is known as a shunt system, consisting of a flexible plastic tube that a surgeon inserts into your brain or spinal cord to allow the fluid to drain. Usually, the surgeon places the other end of this internal tube into your abdomen, so fluid can flow out there and be harmlessly absorbed into the blood. A valve in the tube prevents fluid from flowing back into the brain. The tube remains in place to prevent fluid from building up on the brain again.

In some cases, surgeons can find the obstruction that is preventing fluid from flowing freely around your brain and create a tiny hole so fluid can flow around it. It is possible to carry out this kind of surgery using a neuroendoscope, which is a small camera that allows surgeons to see and operate on parts of the brain that are difficult to reach.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Doctors do not fully understand what causes all cases of hydrocephalus. Some result from head injuries, so wearing head protection is a good way to protect yourself. If you have a shunt fitted to treat your hydrocephalus, head protection is even more necessary, as a blow could damage the shunt.

Many people who have hydrocephalus recover fully with treatment. However, the pressure on the brain can lead to mental problems, as well as affecting the physical development of children. Doctors who are worried about children’s development can refer them to rehabilitation therapists to help them recover.

Doctors don’t think that food and nutrition play a significant role in managing hydrocephalus. However, focusing on your diet can prevent some specific types of this condition. Hydrocephalus is common in kids born with spina bifida, a congenital disability that affects a baby’s spinal cord. Eating plenty of folic acid before you get pregnant and during the early stages of pregnancy can help to reduce the risk of this condition.

Doctors recommend that any woman who might become pregnant should take a 400 mcg folic acid supplement every day to prevent spina bifida. You can also eat dark green leafy vegetables, drink orange juice, and consume bread made from enriched flour to increase your folic acid intake.

What Type of Doctors to See About Hydrocephalus

If you or your child suddenly develop symptoms of hydrocephalus, you should seek emergency medical care. To manage the condition over the long term, you can take your child to see a pediatrician or visit a neurologist. If you need treatment with a shunt, a surgeon will need to carry out the procedure.


Many people make a full recovery from hydrocephalus and go on to live healthy lives. However, it is still a serious condition that needs treatment. If you have symptoms of hydrocephalus, see your doctor or go to the hospital to find out what the problem is and get treatment to drain the excess fluid.

For help finding a doctor, try searching Caredash's database for one near you.