What is hydrocephalus?
Hydrocephalus is a condition in which too much fluid builds up and puts pressure on the brain. In Latin, hydro means “water” and “cephalus” means head. Because of this, hydrocephalus is defined as “water on the brain.” The "water" is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Hydrocephalus occurs most often in newborns.
Hydrocephalus can happen on its own or may be part of a genetic syndrome or other health condition. Further genetic testing may be recommended after birth.
Symptoms of hydrocephalus
The symptoms of hydrocephalus in infants include:
A bulging soft spot on the top of the head (the anterior fontanel)
An unusually large head
Vomiting, sleepiness and irritability
Downward deviation of the eyes
Causes of hydrocephalus
It's normal for the body to produce CSF, which flows around the brain and spinal cord. Hydrocephalus can occur when a blockage develops in the flow of this fluid inside the brain. This causes swelling of the spaces in the brain called the ventricles. When the ventricles swell, they cause harmful pressure on the tissues of the brain. Another cause of hydrocephalus is when there is a problem absorbing the CSF fluid on the outside of the brain.
Some forms of hydrocephalus are genetic and recur in families. Further genetic testing is sometimes recommended.
Types of hydrocephalus
Hydrocephalus may be mild or severe. In mild cases, your child may have very few problems and otherwise typical development. In severe cases, the pressure on the brain can destroy brain tissue and result in brain damage and physical disabilities.
No matter how your child is affected, your Children's Mercy care team will be with you to provide support.
Your doctor may suspect hydrocephalus if your baby's head is measuring unusually large at the 20-week ultrasound. A fetal MRI can help your health care team to determine if there are any other underlying health issues causing the hydrocephalus.
The Fetal Health Center at Children's Mercy can provide prenatal screening and in some cases, intervention for babies with hydrocephalus. We will carefully monitor you and your baby with regular ultrasounds.
You may decide to deliver your baby in the Special Care Delivery unit at the Fetal Health Center so that the team can provide immediate care for your baby while you stay right there with them.
Sometimes, hydrocephalus develops after birth. If your child’s head circumference is growing too fast, your child’s provider may suspect hydrocephalus. They will examine your child, measure your child’s head and ask about the symptoms. If the head is too large for your child’s age, your provider may order scans, such as an ultrasound, CT scan or an MRI, to check for enlarged ventricles in the brain.