Cerebral edema

A cerebral edema (also known as increased intracranial pressure or ICP) is when brain tissue swells. This happens when there’s injury, an infection, after a stroke or because of a lack of oxygen (also called ischemia). When the brain swells, water collects in the tissues and pushes against the skull. This is an inflammatory response, and it happens because the body is trying to get more blood to the injured area. In the case of the brain, this puts pressure on the tissue which leads to damage. Cerebral edema can be life-threatening if the swelling isn’t managed quickly.

Causes of cerebral edema

Cerebral edema can be caused by brain tumours and cancers that move to the brain. It can also happen as a reaction to chemotherapy, brain bleeding, an infection in the brain, or if cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is blocked.

Symptoms of cerebral edema

Symptoms of cerebral edema/brain swelling include:

  • Behaviour changes
  • Coordination problems
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Vision problems
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness or numbness

If pressure increases on the brain tissue, a person may experience:

  • High blood pressure
  • Slow pulse rate
  • Unusual breathing patterns

Doctors will perform physical examinations and use computed tomography (CT) scans or MRIs to determine if you are experiencing a cerebral edema and find the cause.

Treatment for cerebral edema

After a doctor confirms a diagnosis of cerebral edema, they will prescribe treatment. This could include medication or surgery. Medication may be used to help reduce the brain swelling. They may also be used if the cause of the cerebral edema is an infection, or to treat symptoms associated with the cerebral edema.

Surgery may be recommended if CSF needs to be drained. This is the same process for someone with hydrocephalus, another condition that can cause brain injury. For more information about the surgical process of draining CSF, visit the hydrocephalus page.

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Non-Traumatic Brain Injury (nTBI)

An acquired brain injury (ABI) refers to any damage to the brain that occurs after birth and is not related to a congenital or a degenerative disease. There are two types of acquired brain injury: non-traumatic and traumatic.

Topics in this section include:

Non-traumatic brain injury

Non-traumatic acquired brain injuries are caused by something that happens inside the body, or a substance introduced into the body that damages brain tissues.

This includes:

A video on acquired brain injury

Acquired brain injury affects every part of a person’s life. This includes changes to your independence, abilities, work, and relationships with family, friends, and caregivers. Since a brain injury differs from person to person and recovery depends on several factors, in many cases it’s difficult to know what long-term behavioural, cognitive, physical or emotional effects there will be.

The effects of brain injury can be put in the following categories [1]:

Behavioural changes: The way a person acts or makes decisions can change after a brain injury. Behavioural changes include engaging in risky or impulsive behaviour, having difficulty with social and work relationships and isolation. This can be stressful and depending on the behaviour can cause safety concerns. Rehabilitation and medical teams will be able to provide practical tips for behaviour after a brain injury.

Cognitive changes: This is how the brain learns, processes information, forms memories and makes decisions. Challenges include communication, concentration, reading/writing, making decisions, and remembering things.

Emotional changes: after a brain injury, a person may experience new or different emotions, including depression, anxiety, and/or anger. Emotional changes are difficult to adjust to, and it’s important to have a support system of family, friends, and medical professionals.

Physical changes: In some cases, a brain injury will have physical effects. These effects include mobility challenges, headaches, fatigue, pain and sensory changes.

Is a concussion a brain injury?

A concussion is an acquired brain injury. Anyone who sustains a concussion can experience many of the physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural effects that accompany acquired brain injuries.

Concussion is also known as mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) that has no neuroimaging findings. The term mild does not diminish the impacts that concussion can have on your health and activities of daily living (ADLs).

The challenges of prognosis

Prognosis means the likely path a disease or injury will take. In the case of acquired brain injury, prognosis is meant to give a best estimate of effects and recovery. Acquired brain injuries are all different, and there are a lot of factors that will impact a prognosis of recovery.

Factors that affect prognosis include:

  • Severity of injury
  • Previous injuries and existing conditions
  • Access to treatment
  • Age
  • Location of injury

Research shows that there is no system or set of variables that can accurately predict outcome for a single patient [2]. There is no definite timeline for recovery – it’s different for everyone. Doctors will update their prognosis as recovery progresses and provide next steps at the same time.

This section of our website covers the kinds of changes you may experience, management tips, and information on the kinds of tools and services that can help you and your family navigate living with brain injury.


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