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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