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What is Intracranial Pressure?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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High intracranial pressure (ICP) is a medically urgent and very dangerous situation that requires immediate attention. Most times, people who experience this are already exhibiting severe symptoms, though the condition might occur suddenly as a result of traumatic injury to the brain or a blown aneurysm. Actual pressure, when considered alone is not more dangerous than the term blood pressure. It’s a measurement of pressure in the brain, and people have acceptable amounts of this when healthy, just as there are healthy blood pressure levels. Yet when pressure rises past a certain point it poses great threat to the brain and could result in serious brain injury and/ or death.

Given the potential severity of high intracranial pressure, people with suspected head injuries or any forms of brain lesions may be watched in hospital settings to see if there is need to medically intervene. There are several ways to monitor pressure in the brain, including through special catheters. No treatment could be necessary if ICP doesn’t rise, particularly after a head injury or surgery on the brain, but this scenario could quickly change if intracranial pressure increases dramatically.

There are many potential causes of ICP. Head injury can be one clear-cut instance where this situation is feared. Infections of the brain as from encephalitis or meningitis, water on the brain or hydrocephalus, and stroke may elevate risk for increased intracranial pressure too. Tumors in the brain or aneurysms are other risk factors.

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In early stages, symptoms of increasing intracranial pressure might include headache, extreme sleepiness, nausea and throwing up, and unexplainable changes in the way a person acts. As the pressure increases, it pushes in on the structures of the brain and most frequently will result in loss of consciousness/coma. This may or may not be accompanied by seizures. Sometimes in infants higher ICP is noticed due to bulging soft spots, and this should always be a symptom treated very seriously.

Doctors do have ways to treat many cases of increasing intracranial pressure. Anyone who enjoys medical shows on television would assume this means drilling holes in the head or removing parts of the skull in what is called a decompressive craniectomy. This may not be or may not be required and doctors have other options first, including using medications that may reduce pressure, inducing coma if needed, or creating a shunt to allow fluid build-up to exit.

These procedures don’t necessarily mean a patient is fully cured. Hospitalization is typically required for some time, any underlying conditions have to be treated, and the degree to which intracranial pressure was elevated may have some effect on brain recovery. It can be said that time is of the essence when addressing this condition, due to its potential for permanent brain damage. Outcome is individualized, depending on degree of time higher-pressure state existed, success of interventions, and ability to treat underlying causes effectively.

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