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Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH) and Benign Intracranial Hypertension (BIH)

Timothy C. Hain, MD. Page last modified: April 29, 2014

Also see:  hydrocephalus, and csf-leak

ventriculomegaly

Overview of NPH and BIH

In the poorly named syndrome of normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), there is the triad ("Hakim's triad") of an apraxic gait, urinary incontinence and memory loss. The syndrome was first recognized in 1965 (Adams, Fisher et al. 1965; Hakim and Adams 1965), perhaps due to the general availablity of the new technology of the brain CT scan.

Reference Population Prevalence
Jaraj et al, 2014

70-79

80+

0.2%

5.9%

Hiraoka, K., et al. (2008). 65+ Japan (170 persons) 2.9%
Tanaka, N., et al. (2009). 65+ Japan (567 persons) 1.4%
Marmarou, A., et al. (2007). Nursing home residents in 4 facilities 9-14%
Brean, A. and P. K. Eide (2008). 220,000 persons in Norway 21.9/100,000 (.00022%)

 

NPH's prevalence estimates vary widely -- see the table above. In our opinion, the lower estimates are more likely to be correct. NPH has been written about extensively and there are 1000's of articles in the medical literature.

The reason for the name of "NPH", is that while the cerebral ventricles are enlarged (see diagnosis section below), when pressure is measured through a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), pressure is within normal limits. It is nevertheless thought that at some times, CSF pressure must be too high. The name NPH is a poor one because it it implies that pressure is always normal. NPH differs from "hydrocephalus", where CSF pressure is higher than normal.

In Benign Intracranial Hypertension (another poorly named syndrome), there is also increased CSF pressure -- in this case easily measurable on lumbar puncture, but there is no obvious cause (such as a tumor or infection). Because BIH is associated with visual loss, it is not truly benign. BIH usually occurs in young obese women. Classic signs are headaches or blurred vision, possibly accompanied by pulsatile tinnitus, hearing loss and dizziness. Papilloedema (swelling of the optic disk) is the most common examination finding. Blindness can eventually result from BIH.

Case example of NPH:

A 49 year old woman was found to have enlarged ventricles on MRI testing. The MRI testing was provoked by spells of shaking and unsteadiness. While at work, she would fall sideways into a wall without loss of consciousness. She was referred for evaluation to the authors clinical practice and a diagnosis of NPH was made from the symptoms and MRI. Diamox (a medication to lower CSF pressure) was tried but it was not effective.

She was admitted to the hospital and posturography was done. This documented very poor balance. Thirty cc of spinal fluid were next removed under Xray control and her posturography was repeated. The repeat study showed greatly improved balance. She felt normal for about 3 days thereafter but then imbalance returned.

She was then sent for an elective ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt with a Codman programmable valve. This was performed without complication, and balance has been normal thereafter.

Causes of NPH and BIH

NPH is attributed to scarring of the arachnoid granulations that absorb CSF. In theory, it may also be caused by overproduction of CSF.

BIH is attributed to increased intrabdominal pressure, which hinders cerebral venous return (Sugerman et al, 1997)

Diagnosis and testing

The "consensus" opinion regarding diagnosis of NPH is that it requires the following:

(Tsakanikas and Relkin 2007)

In persons with the diagnostic picture of NPH, MRI or CT testing is generally done and is normal or shows slight enlargement of the ventricles. There is no papilloedema on examination (excluding frank hydrocephalus)

The incontinence in NPH is attributed to a combination of Sakakibara, R., T. Uchiyama, et al. (2008)

The most practical test for diagnosis, in the authors opinion, is the "tap" test. This entails removal of CSF through a therapeutic lumbar puncture (Wikkelso, Andersson et al. 1982). This can be combined with checking for chronic infections, as well measurement of gait and postural stability as well as cognitive function (Williams et al, 2008; Ravdin et al, 2008). An improvement in postural stability the following day, after removal of CSF, is diagnostic of NPH. This test is done in our practice in Chicago.

A more difficult test than the "tap" test is continuous lumbar drainage (Panagiotopoulos, Konstantinou et al. 2005). Again gait and cognitive function are assessed post lumbar drainage. This test is likely more accurate, but require an inpatient admission to a specialized unit, and also has more risks.

In persons with the picture of BIH, lumbar puncture shows increased CSF pressure with normal cells and protein. MRI or CT scan generally shows normal sized ventricles. Pulsitile tinnitus should be reduced or eliminated by pressure over the jugular vein.

Treatment of NPH and BIH

Treatment of NPH relies on shunting. About 60% of patients have immediate improvement, about 30% prolonged improvement.

There are many possible serious complications to consider including:

Lumbar shunts are generally thought to fail after about 6 months, and as many as 100% require one or more shunt revisions. In most centers that do lumbar shunts, the revision:new shunt ratio is about 3:1.

Conventional VP shunts may be effective, and they have the advantage of less likelihood of needing revision as they do not have the tendency to close off by themselves. In our opinion, a VP shunt that is adjustable from the outside is presently the best solution for NPH as it avoids the need for shunt revision and also can be adjusted to optimize function without more surgery. An example of this approach is discussed in the case above.

Treatment of BIH is similar to treatment of NPH. It may also include shunting, but also may be managed with serial lumbar punctures, optic nerve sheath decompression, and acetazolamide to lower CSF pressure. Bariatric surgery may be appropriate in those with BIH with obesity.

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Copyright April 29, 2014 , Timothy C. Hain, M.D. All rights reserved. Last saved on April 29, 2014