What are the symptoms and treatment options for hydrocephalus?

Symptom Database

Hydrocephalus is a medical condition characterized by the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain, leading to an increase in intracranial pressure. This condition can occur in individuals of all ages, from infants to older adults. Understanding the symptoms and treatment options for hydrocephalus is crucial for early diagnosis and effective management of the condition.

Hydrocephalus Causes

Hydrocephalus can have various causes, including:

  • Obstruction: This occurs when there is a blockage in the flow of CSF, preventing it from draining properly. It can be caused by tumors, cysts, or other abnormalities in the brain.
  • Overproduction of CSF: In some cases, the body produces an excessive amount of CSF, leading to its accumulation in the brain.
  • Impaired absorption: CSF is typically absorbed into the bloodstream. However, if this process is impaired, it can result in hydrocephalus.

Hydrocephalus Symptoms

The symptoms of hydrocephalus can vary depending on the age of the individual and the underlying cause. Common symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Difficulty walking or maintaining balance
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Poor coordination
  • Seizures
  • Excessive sleepiness or lethargy

In infants, hydrocephalus may present with additional symptoms such as an enlarged head, bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the baby’s skull), and rapid increase in head circumference.

Hydrocephalus Treatment

The treatment options for hydrocephalus depend on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. The primary goal of treatment is to relieve the pressure on the brain and prevent further damage. The following are common treatment approaches:

Hydrocephalus in Adults

In adults, hydrocephalus is typically treated through surgical intervention. The most common surgical procedure is the insertion of a shunt, a thin tube that helps drain excess CSF from the brain to another part of the body, such as the abdomen or heart. This allows for proper drainage and helps regulate the flow of CSF.

In some cases, endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV) may be performed. This procedure involves creating a small hole in the floor of the third ventricle to allow CSF to flow out of the brain without the need for a shunt.

Hydrocephalus in Children

In children, the treatment approach may vary depending on the age of the child and the cause of hydrocephalus. Shunt placement is a common treatment option for children as well. However, due to the child’s growing body, additional surgeries may be required to adjust or replace the shunt as they grow.

In some cases, endoscopic procedures may also be considered for children, depending on the specific circumstances and the child’s overall health.

Types of Hydrocephalus

Hydrocephalus can be classified into different types based on the underlying cause and the location of the obstruction. These include:

Communicating Hydrocephalus

In communicating hydrocephalus, there is a disruption in the absorption of CSF, leading to its accumulation. This type of hydrocephalus occurs when the flow of CSF is blocked after it exits the ventricles, but before it is absorbed into the bloodstream. It can be caused by conditions such as meningitis, subarachnoid hemorrhage, or trauma.

Non-communicating Hydrocephalus

Non-communicating hydrocephalus, also known as obstructive hydrocephalus, occurs when there is a blockage in the flow of CSF within the ventricular system. This blockage prevents the fluid from flowing freely, leading to its accumulation. Non-communicating hydrocephalus can be caused by congenital malformations, tumors, or cysts.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a condition characterized by the accumulation of CSF without a significant increase in intracranial pressure. This type of hydrocephalus typically affects older adults and is often associated with symptoms such as gait disturbances, urinary incontinence, and cognitive decline. The treatment for NPH usually involves the insertion of a shunt to drain excess CSF.

Congenital Hydrocephalus

Congenital hydrocephalus refers to hydrocephalus that is present at birth. It can be caused by genetic factors or developmental abnormalities during fetal development. Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for managing congenital hydrocephalus and preventing complications.

Hydrocephalus Diagnosis

Diagnosing hydrocephalus involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and imaging tests. The following diagnostic methods may be used:

  • Neurological examination: This involves assessing the individual’s reflexes, muscle strength, coordination, and sensory function.
  • Imaging tests: CT scans and MRI scans are commonly used to visualize the brain and identify any abnormalities or signs of hydrocephalus.
  • Lumbar puncture: This procedure involves the removal of a small amount of CSF from the spinal canal for analysis.


Hydrocephalus is a complex condition that requires early diagnosis and appropriate treatment to prevent complications and improve quality of life. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for hydrocephalus is essential for individuals and their families. If you or a loved one experience any symptoms associated with hydrocephalus, it is important to seek medical attention promptly for proper evaluation and management.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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