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Derived from the Greek words "hydro" meaning water and "cephalus" meaning head, this condition was once referred to as "water on the brain," however the "water" is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. As its name implies, it is a condition in which the primary characteristic is excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain. When CSF builds up within the ventricles of the brain it may increase pressure within the head.

Hydrocephalus can occur at any age however it is most common in infants and adults age 60 and older. According to NINDS, it is believed to affect approximately one in every 500 children.


Hydrocephalus can be inherited although it is rare or may be associated with developmental disorders, including spina bifida (congenital defect of the spine) and encephalocele (hernia of the brain). Other causes can include bleeding within the brain, brain tumors, head injuries, complications of premature birth or diseases such as meningitis.


Symptoms of hydrocephalus will vary from person to person and will differ based on age.

Hydrocephalus in infants:

  • Abnormal enlargement of the head
  • Soft spot is tense and bulging
  • Scalp may appear thin
  • Bones in baby's head are separated
  • Veins in scalp
  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Downward deviation of baby's eyes
  • Seizures
  • Poor appetite

Hydrocephalus in toddlers and older children:

  • Abnormal enlargement of the head
  • Headache
  • Nausea / Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance issues or delayed progress in walking
  • Irritability
  • Sleepiness
  • Delayed progress in talking
  • Loss of sensory motor functions
  • Seizures
  • Poor Appetite
  • Difficulty remaining awake or waking up

Hydrocephalus in young / middle-aged adults:

  • Headache
  • Difficulty remaining awake or waking up
  • Loss of coordination or balance
  • Bladder control problems
  • Impaired vision
  • Impaired cognitive skills that may affect job performance or personal skills

Hydrocephalus in older adults

  • Loss of coordination of balance
  • Memory loss
  • Shuffling walk
  • Headache
  • Bladder control problems


As with any diagnosis, your physician will collect your medical history and perform a physical examination. He or she may also perform a complete neurological examination including diagnostic testing such as with a CT or an MRI. These tests can reveal information about the severity of the condition and its likely cause or rule out other conditions that may yield the same symptoms.


Hydrocephalus can be treated in a variety of ways (including directly and indirectly), however the most common method is indirectly by surgically inserting a shunt system which diverts the CSF to another body cavity where it can be absorbed as part of the normal circulatory process. Once inserted, the shunt system usually remains in place for the duration of a patient's life and shunt revisions are sometimes necessary. If directly treated, the cause of the CSF obstruction is surgically removed. In some cases, two procedures are performed, one to divert the CSF, and another a later stage to remove the cause of the obstruction (such as a brain tumor) if possible.

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