Hydrocephalus: A Disability Overview in the UK

Hydrocephalus is a neurological condition characterised by an abnormal build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. In the UK, it affects thousands of people - and those with the condition often rely on shunt or normal pressure therapies to manage their symptoms. Learn more about hydrocephalus, how it's diagnosed and treated, and what life looks like for those living with the disability.

What is hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is a neurological condition characterised by an abnormal build-up of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. It can be caused by many different factors, including trauma, infection, genetic abnormalities, tumours and other medical conditions. If left untreated, hydrocephalus can cause serious issues such as increased intracranial pressure, cognitive decline and physical disabilities. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential for managing the condition and maintaining quality of life for those with the disorder.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of hydrocephalus include headaches, vomiting, vision problems, cognitive impairment, seizures and balance issues. These symptoms will vary depending on the individual and the severity of their case. It can also present differently in different age groups – those who develop it in childhood may experience intellectual disability, while adults may only have mild symptoms or no noticeable symptoms at all.

Who is at risk of developing hydrocephalus?

While anyone can develop hydrocephalus, there are certain risk factors associated with the condition. These include genetics, birth trauma, tumors and infections which cause damage to the brain or spinal cord lesions. Premature babies also have an increased risk of hydrocephalus due to their underdeveloped skulls, which can cause a blockage in the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

How is hydrocephalus diagnosed?

Diagnosis of hydrocephalus is often made by physical signs including an enlarged head or fontanelle associated with increased pressure in the skull, as well as signs of impaired neurological development or function. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and computed tomography (CT) scans can help detect the presence and cause of hydrocephalus, providing a more detailed view of the brain. A lumbar puncture may also be used to measure the pressure inside the skull, as well as looking for any abnormalities in the composition of cerebrospinal fluid.

How are shunt or normal pressure therapy used to treat hydrocephalus?

Treatment for hydrocephalus is often through the use of shunt or normal pressure therapy. A shunt is a surgically implanted device that pulls cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) away from the brain and transfers it elsewhere in the body. Normal pressure therapy, also termed ‘non-invasive hydrostatic ventriculoperitoneal therapy’, uses a small external machine connected to tubing inserted into the lateral ventricles of the brain via an endoscope to assist with CSF drainage. Both treatments are meant to reduce intracranial pressure and its consequences caused by the accumulation of CSF within the brain.

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