Brain swelling, also known as brain edema and cerebral edema, is a serious consequence of a brain injury. When the brain swells, it affects the patient's cognitive and behavioral function. In addition, brain swelling puts the patient at risk for severe brain damage and death. Immediate treatment is crucial to save the patient's life.
Brain swelling is caused by an impact to the brain, such as through a traumatic brain injury. Hypertension, eclampsia and infectious diseases--like mumps, malaria, Reyes syndrome, typhus and Kawasaki disease--can also cause brain swelling. During cerebral edema, a large amount of water invades the skull, which causes the brain to swell. In cases of vasogenic cerebral edema, the blood-brain barrier, which is a protective layer around the brain, is ruptured. Brain swelling can also result from excessive pressure around the brain, which is from an impaired blood flow.
The first indication of brain swelling is a change in consciousness. If the patient becomes unconscious after a traumatic brain injury, seek medical attention immediately. Only a medical professional can officially diagnose cerebral edema, since it is not easy to notice brain swelling by sight alone. Other symptoms include changes in behavior or personality, confusion, nausea, numbness, dizziness and lack of coordination. Often patients will say they feel fine and refuse medical help; however, after the onset of symptoms, they progress rapidly.
Brain swelling is the leading cause of death from a brain injury. Time is a factor in treating brain swelling, so do not wait to see if symptoms appear before seeking help. Severe brain damage can occur if too much time lapses. Medication can be used to reduce the swelling, and in advanced cases, surgery can also relieve pressure and excess fluid. However, surgery is a dangerous option and is only used as a last resort. If the cause of the brain swelling is not treated, the patient is still at risk.
Is This an Emergency?
- David Weintraub, MD, director of functional neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, N.Y.
- American Heart Association: “Recommendations for the Management of Cerebral and Cerebellar Infarction with Swelling”
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: “Traumatic Brain Injury”
- Columbia Department of Neurology: “Bacterial Meningitis"
- Mayo Clinic: “Traumatic Brain Injury”
- Mayo Clinic: “Reye’s Syndrome”
- Mayo Clinic: “Meningitis”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine/ StatPearls: "Cerebral Edema"