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Life-Threatening Complications of Hydrocephalus

Posted Mar 10 2012 8:08am


Hydrocephalus is almost always treated successfully with surgical placement of a shunt or an ETV ; but rarely does either treatment last a lifetime without complications. A critical aspect of managing hydrocephalus is being well informed and staying vigilant about potential life-threatening complications. Most problems associated with shunting or ETV occur weeks or even years after the surgery. When things are going well, it is easy to forget about hydrocephalus and having a shunt or an ETV. We encourage you to stay alert and informed. Feel free to call or email the Hydrocephalus Association for more information about any of the complications listed here.

Knowing what symptoms to watch for will help you become more at ease. Although the early symptoms of shunt malfunction or infection in children—fever, vomiting and irritability—are similar to many childhood illnesses, you will learn to determine the symptoms associated with shunt failure in a particular individual. Adults tend to exhibit the symptoms they experienced before treatment when there is a problem. If you have any doubt about symptoms, don’t hesitate to contact a doctor. If you suspect there is a problem with the shunt, you are wise to have it checked by the neurosurgeon rather than ignore it. It is better to have a false alarm checked than to leave it unattended. Remember, although shunt complications can be very serious and become life threatening, they can almost always be treated successfully when they are discovered early.
An estimated 50% of shunts fail within two years and 20-50% of ETVs close up within five years. Either treatment can fail at any time. Infections are less common, but still not infrequent. Be informed and vigilant. Be prepared to act quickly. Mere hours can mean the difference between a resolvable complication and brain damage or even death, especially in children.
Shunt malfunction is usually a problem with a partial or complete blockage of the shunt. The fluid backs up from the site of the obstruction and, if the blockage is not corrected, almost always results in recurrent symptoms of hydrocephalus. Shunt obstruction can occur in any part of the shunt. Most commonly in children, the ventricular catheter (the one in the brain) becomes obstructed by tissue from the choroid plexus or ventricles. In adults it is more often the distal catheter (the one that drains the fluid to another part of the body) that becomes blocked. The catheters or the valve may become blocked with blood cells or bacteria. Shunts are very durable, but the components of the shunt can become disengaged or fractured as a result of wear or as a child grows, and occasionally they move from where they originally were placed. More rarely, a valve will fail because of mechanical malfunction.

Shunt infection usually is caused by a person’s own bacterial organisms; it is not acquired from exposure to other children or adults who are ill. The most common organism to produce infection is Staphylococcus Epidermidis , which is normally found on the surface of the person’s skin and in the sweat glands and hair follicles deep within the skin. Infections of this type are most likely to occur one to three months after surgery but may occur up to six months after the placement of a shunt. People with ventriculo-peritoneal (VP) shunts are at risk of developing a shunt infection secondary to abdominal infection, whereas people with ventriculo-atrial (VA) shunts may develop generalized infection, which can quickly become serious. In either case, the shunt infection must be treated immediately to avoid life-threatening illness or possible brain damage.

Other Shunt Complications may include the shunt system draining fluid at the wrong rate. Overdrainage of the ventricles can cause the ventricle to decrease in size to the point where the brain and its meninges pull away from the skull or the ventricles become like slits. If blood from broken vessels in the meninges becomes trapped between the brain and skull, resulting in a subdural hematoma, further surgery is required. This is most common in older adults with normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). Slit-like ventricles, sometimes called slit-ventricle syndrome (SVS), are most commonly a problem in young adults who have been shunted since childhood.

Underdrainage of the ventricles can fail to relieve the symptoms of hydrocephalus. To restore a balanced flow of CSF it may be necessary to place a new shunt containing a more appropriate pressure valve. For those who have externally adjustable or programmable valves, the balance of flow can often be restored by re-setting the opening pressure.
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