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Hydrocephaly belongs to the spine and brain category of birth defects.

What it is

Hydrocephaly is a condition in which an abnormal amount of cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the cranium and causes an enlargement of the head. When this happens, the excess fluid causes pressure on the brain that leads to shrinkage of the brain tissue. Hydrocephaly can impair both physical and cognitive development in infants who suffer from the condition.

Congenital hydrocephaly is one of the most common types of central nervous system irregularities. Though it is difficult to know the exact number of people who are living with the condition, experts estimate that it affects approximately 1 in every 500 children. The condition usually occurs prenatally, and typically around the 20th week of pregnancy. Hydrocephaly can occur alone, with neural tube defects such as spina bifida, or as part of a syndrome, such as Dandy-Walker Syndrome.


Hydrocephaly can produce different symptoms based on the cause of the condition and the age of onset. For infants, symptoms can include:

  • Unusually large head
  • Rapid increase in head circumference
  • Protruding soft spot on the top of the head
  • Vomiting
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Eyes fixed downward
  • Developmental delay


Painkillers: A study recently published by the CDC has found that mothers taking opioid painkillers during pregnancy may double their risk of delivering a baby afflicted with hydrocephaly. The following is a list of these opioids that may have been linked with prenatal development of hydrocephaly:


Treatment usually involves surgically inserting a shunt system into the brain that can divert the flow of cerebrospinal fluid into another part of the body (such as the stomach) where it can be absorbed. While post-treatment prognosis varies based on the type and severity of the condition, as well as the timeliness in which it is treated, many individuals who receive treatment can go on to lead normal lives with minimal limitations. Left untreated, however, the condition can cause physical and cognitive impairments and may even be fatal.

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