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Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

What is normal pressure hydrocephalus?

The brain has chambers called ventricles that normally contain fluid. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and it cushions the brain and spinal cord. Normally your body makes just enough CSF each day and absorbs that same amount. Sometimes, however, too much fluid can build up in the ventricles. This accumulation of fluid leads to a condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH).

What causes normal pressure hydrocephalus?

The cause of excess fluid in the ventricles of the brain may be due to injury, bleeding, infection, brain tumor, or surgery on the brain. However, the cause is often not known. When excess fluid builds up in the ventricles, they enlarge and press against nearby brain tissue. This extra fluid and pressure can lead to brain damage.

NPH though rare, most often affects older adults, and its symptoms can be similar to those of Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases. A health care provider familiar with these conditions can often tell the difference between these diseases and NPH after special testing. NPH may account for 5% of dementia cases in the U.S.

Who is at risk for normal pressure hydrocephalus?

You are at increased risk for NPH if you:

  • Are age over 60 years
  • Have a brain infection
  • Have had a head injury
  • Have a brain tumor
  • Have undergone brain surgery

What are the symptoms of normal pressure hydrocephalus?

These are possible symptoms of NPH:

  • Trouble walking
  • Poor balance
  • Falling
  • Changes in the way you walk
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood changes
  • Depression
  • Difficulty responding to questions
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

How is normal pressure hydrocephalus diagnosed?

Your medical team may need to do a number of tests to confirm NPH, such as:

  • Physical exam, which includes asking about your symptoms
  • Evaluation of the way you walk
  • CT or MRI scans of your brain
  • Spinal tap to remove a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid


How is normal pressure hydrocephalus treated?

A commonly used treatment for NPH is surgery to place a tube, called a shunt, into the brain to drain the excess fluid. The shunt is usually inserted into a ventricle in the brain and then passed under your skin from your head through your neck and chest to your abdomen. The extra fluid in your brain flows through the shunt into your abdomen, where your body absorbs it. The ventricles in your brain may then go back to their normal size. The shunt stays in place as long as there is too much CSF in the brain.

Implanting a shunt doesn’t work for everyone, but some people do benefit from it. Getting prompt diagnosis and treatment helps improve your chances of a good outcome.

What are the complications of normal pressure hydrocephalus?

The complications of NPH include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Trouble thinking
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control

When should I call my health care provider?

If you or an elderly relative have changes in walking, thinking, mood, and/or loss of bowel and bladder control, contact your health care provider. Describe when the changes started and how they are affecting your physical activity and emotional well-being.

Key points

  • Walking difficulties, difficulty thinking, or loss of bowel and bladder control may indicate NPH.
  • Early diagnosis may prevent long-term problems.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Jones, Niya, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/2/2014
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