Increased intracranial pressure (ICP): Symptoms, causes, and treatment
A sudden increase in the pressure inside a person’s skull is a medical emergency. Left untreated, an increase in the intracranial pressure (ICP) may lead to brain injury, seizure, coma, stroke, or death.
With prompt treatment, it is possible for people with increased ICP to make a full recovery.
In this article, we look at the symptoms, causes, and treatments of increased ICP.
Symptoms of increased ICP
The symptoms of increased ICP can vary depending on a person’s age.
Infants with increased ICP may have different symptoms to older children or adults with the condition, as discussed below.
Symptoms in adults
Symptoms of increased ICP in adults include:
- pupils that do not respond to light in the usual way
- behavior changes
- reduced alertness
- muscle weakness
- speech or movement difficulties
- blurred vision
As raised ICP progresses, a person may lose consciousness and go into a coma. High ICP may cause brain damage if a person does not receive emergency treatment.
Symptoms in infants
Infants with increased ICP may show some of the same symptoms as adults. In addition, the shape of their heads may be affected.
Infants still have soft plates in their skull that fibrous tissue called skull sutures knit together. Increased ICP may cause the skull sutures to separate and the soft plates to move apart.
Increased ICP in infants may also cause their fontanel to bulge out. The fontanel is the soft spot on the top of the skull.
If a person has the symptoms of increased ICP, they should see a doctor straight away. This is a medical emergency and may lead to brain injury if a person does not receive rapid treatment.
A doctor will measure the ICP in millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg). The normal range is less than 20 mm/Hg. When ICP goes above this, a person may be experiencing increased ICP.
To diagnose increased ICP, a doctor may ask if a person has:
- experienced a blow to a head
- a previous diagnosis of a brain tumor
Then, the doctor may carry out the following tests:
- neurological exam to test a person’s senses, balance, and mental state
- spinal tap that measures cerebrospinal fluid pressure
- CT scan that produces images of the head and brain
After these initial tests, the doctor may use an MRI scan to examine a person’s brain tissue in more detail.
If a person has a diagnosis of increased ICP, a doctor will immediately work to reduce the pressure inside the skull to lessen the risk of brain damage. They will then work to treat the underlying cause of the increased pressure.
Treatment methods for reducing ICP include:
- draining the excess cerebrospinal fluid with a shunt, to reduce pressure on the brain that hydrocephalus has caused
- medication that reduces brain swelling, such as mannitol and hypertonic saline
- surgery, less commonly, to remove a small section of the skull and relieve the pressure
A doctor may give the person a sedative to help reduce anxiety and lower their blood pressure. The person may also need breathing support. The doctor will monitor their vital signs throughout their treatment.
In rare cases, the doctor may put a person with high ICP into a medically induced coma to treat their condition.
Complications of increased ICP include:
- brain damage
Without proper treatment, increased ICP can be fatal.
Stroke may cause increased ICP. A person can reduce their risk of stroke in the following ways:
- taking steps to lower high blood pressure
- stopping smoking
- managing blood sugar levels
- controlling cholesterol levels
- exercising regularly
High blood pressure
High blood pressure may cause increased ICP. A person can maintain healthy blood pressure by:
- losing weight if overweight or maintaining a healthy weight
- avoiding drugs that increase blood pressure
- eating a healthful, balanced diet
- reducing salt intake
- exercising regularly
A head injury may cause increased ICP. Some examples of how a person can reduce their risk of head injury include:
- avoiding extreme sports or dangerous activities
- always wearing a helmet for activities such as riding a bike
- always wearing a seatbelt when in a car
Increased ICP is when the pressure inside a person’s skull increases. When this happens suddenly, it is a medical emergency. The most common cause of high ICP is a blow to the head.
The main symptoms are headache, confusion, decreased alertness, and nausea. A person’s pupils may not respond to light in the usual way.
A person with increased ICP may need urgent treatment. The immediate aim of treatment is to bring down the pressure on their brain tissue, which helps to reduce the risk of brain damage.
Without proper treatment, this condition may lead to seizure, coma, stroke, or brain damage. In severe cases, increased ICP can be fatal. Rapid treatment may improve a person’s outlook. Making a full recovery with timely treatment is possible.
Increased ICP is not always preventable, but a person can reduce their risk of some causes through lifestyle changes.
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