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A ventricular shunt is a surgical procedure in which a tube is inserted into the ventricles of the brain. This tube is used to drain excess fluid from the brain and relieve pressure inside the skull, usually as an attempt to prevent or arrest brain damage. The tube is extended though the body to a place where the excess fluid can drain safely, such as the ureter. Although this is an invasive surgery, the success rate for a ventricular shunt is high.
In adult patients, a ventricular shunt is often a one-time operation, but in children, it may be necessary to make changes, or revisions, to the shunt over the course of the child's life. Many shunts are placed in infancy, which necessitates repeated operations as the child grows to lengthen the drainage tube. Each of these separate surgeries comes with its own set of risks, many of which are dependent on the individual patient. Shunts can also be removed, but this happens very rarely, and doing so has great potential to put a patient's life in danger. Certain patients may reach a point where they no longer need a previously placed shunt, but in most cases the shunt is not removed.
There are a variety of conditions that can cause fluid buildup in the brain, which would create a need for a shunt. The medical term for this fluid buildup is hydrocephalus, meaning "water in the brain." Sometimes this happens because of a genetic abnormality, but this is relatively rare. Birth defects, such as spina bifida, can also cause fluid buildup. More commonly, fluid buildup occurs because of an injury to the brain that causes proper drainage channels for cerebrospinal fluid to be blocked.
Complications can occur after placement of a ventricular shunt, ranging from relatively mild to quite severe. Infections can happen in the brain after shunt placement, but they can often be cured properly with antibiotics. Blockage of the shunt tube is also a significant possibility, either in the brain or at the point of drainage. The most severe complication is over-drainage, which results in fluid being withdrawn from the brain too quickly leading to ventricle collapse. If any of these complications occur, swift treatment is imperative to prevent any further neurological damage or death.
When inserted and monitored properly, a ventricular shunt can prevent cases of severe brain damage and allow recipients to live a normal life. Patients are sometimes left with small tics or mild seizures as a result of the shunt, but these lingering effects are not common. As with any foreign object permanently placed in the body there is always a chance for unforeseen complications later in life, but shunts are not inherently dangerous in themselves.