Increased intracranial pressure: what you need to know

Increased intracranial pressure is a medical term that refers to increased pressure within a person’s skull. This pressure can affect the brain if doctors don’t treat it.
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A sudden increase in pressure inside a person’s skull is a medical emergency. If left untreated, increased intracranial pressure (ICP) or intracranial hypertension (ICH) can lead to brain damage, seizures, coma, stroke, or death. With prompt treatment, people with increased ICP may make a full recovery.

Symptoms of increased ICP

Symptoms of increased ICP can vary depending on a person’s age. Babies with increased ICP may have different symptoms than older children or adults with the condition, as explained below.

Symptoms in adults

Symptoms of increased ICP in adults include:

  • pupils that do not respond to light in the usual way
  • headache
  • behavior changes
  • reduced alertness
  • drowsiness
  • muscular weakness
  • trouble speaking or moving
  • vomits
  • blurry vision
  • confusion

As ICP increases, a person may lose consciousness and go into a coma. An elevated ICP can cause brain damage if a person does not receive emergency treatment.

Symptoms in Babies

Babies with increased ICP may show some of the same symptoms as adults. Also, the shape of their heads can be affected.
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Babies still have soft plaques on the skull, and fibrous tissue called the skull suture becomes intertwined. Increased ICP can cause the sutures in the skull to separate and the soft plaques to separate. Increased ICP in babies can also cause their fontanelle to increase. The fontanel is the soft spot at the top of the skull.


The following is a list of medical conditions and other causes that can lead to increased ICP:

  • brain injury, which is often the result of a blow to the head
  • hydrocephalus, or too much cerebrospinal fluid in the brain
  • brain swelling
  • bleeding or blood pooling in the brain
  • brain aneurysm
  • brain infection, such as meningitis or encephalitis
  • cerebral stroke
  • high blood pressure
  • brain tumor
  • drug interaction
  • seizure
  • epilepsy
  • hypoxemia, a deficiency of oxygen in the blood.

In babies, elevated ICP can be the result of child abuse. If a person handles a baby too roughly, it can cause them to develop a brain injury. This is known as shaken baby syndrome. One source has estimated that thousands of children experience shaken baby syndrome each year. The condition can arise if an adult violently shakes a baby to keep it from crying. Anyone who suspects that a child may be being abused can contact the National Child Abuse Hotline anonymously.


If a person has the symptoms of increased ICP, they should see a doctor immediately. This is a medical emergency and can lead to brain injury if a person does not receive prompt treatment. A doctor will measure ICP in millimeters of mercury (mm / Hg). The normal range is less than 20mm / Hg. When the ICP exceeds this, a person may be experiencing an increase in ICP.

To diagnose increased ICP, a doctor may ask if a person:

  • experienced a blow to the head
  • have a previous diagnosis of a brain tumor.

Then the doctor may perform the following tests:

  • neurological exam to assess a person’s senses, balance, and mental state.
    spinal tap that measures the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid
  • CT scan that produces images of the head and brain.

After these initial tests, the doctor can use an MRI to examine a person’s brain tissue in more detail.

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