Cerebral Edema: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Cerebral edema is a serious medical condition that causes swelling in the brain. This lesson will focus on the symptoms caused by brain swelling, as well as the possible treatment options.

What Is Cerebral Edema?

The easiest way to define cerebral edema is to break down the meaning of each word. 'Cerebral' means 'brain,' and 'edema' means 'swelling' (or fluid retention), so 'cerebral edema' just means 'swelling of the brain.'

Cerebral edema is a pretty serious condition that often requires immediate medical attention. Think about it: your brain is encased in your skull, so there really isn't much 'extra' room for the brain to expand. If the brain swells to the point where it's pressing up against the inside of the skull, the resulting pressure can cut off blood flow, ultimately depriving the brain of oxygen. If this oxygen deprivation lasts too long, cells begin dying and permanent damage occurs.

Swelling in the brain can be caused by illness, injury, or even high altitude, and the severity of the swelling often depends on the cause. For example, an illness like a tumor may only cause swelling in one part of the brain, while swelling caused by high altitude may affect the entire brain.

Symptoms of Cerebral Edema

The symptoms of cerebral edema typically appear suddenly and without warning. These can include:

  • headache
  • neck pain
  • neck stiffness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • irregular breathing
  • changes in vision, speech, memory, or coordination
  • confusion
  • numbness
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness

Of these symptoms, seizures and losing consciousness are the most serious and indicate that the brain isn't receiving adequate oxygen. If this deprivation lasts too long, cerebral edema can lead to death.

Treating Cerebral Edema

Minor cases of cerebral edema usually go away naturally within a few days. For example, if you fell and bonked your head, you might visit the doctor and find out you have a concussion (a type of swelling in the brain due to injury). A concussion can be serious, but a minor one just requires rest and it will eventually go away on its own.

However, more serious cases of cerebral edema typically require treatment. The primary goal of treatment is to restore the oxygen supply to the brain as soon as possible to avoid permanent damage or death. This can most easily be done by oxygen therapy or by taking certain medications, like an anti-inflammatory medication to limit swelling.

Administering intravenous (IV) fluids can help by maintaining blood pressure. Sometimes cerebral edema can cause blood pressure to suddenly plummet, but IV fluids can prevent this.

In the most serious cases, surgery may be necessary. In a procedure called a ventriculostomy, a hole is drilled into the skull above the swelling site. Once this hole is formed, a tube can be inserted to drain excess fluids and help relieve pressure to the affected area.

Finally, it may be possible to remove a piece of the skull to accommodate more room for swelling or to provide access to the area causing the swelling so that it can be fixed.

Brain surgery is one treatment option.
brain surgery

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