Spinal tap may detect increased pressure in the head as a cause of headaches.

Increased intracranial pressure is an under-diagnosed cause of difficult to treat headaches. Persistent chronic headaches that do not respond to treatment may be due to increased pressure inside the head. These headaches may resemble chronic migraine headaches and many doctors will try treating these patients with preventive medications, such as Neurontin (gabapentin), Topamax (topiramate), amitriptyline (Elavil), or Botox injections. If these approaches do not provide relief, measurement of intracranial pressure should be considered. Most patients who suffer from increased intracranial pressure have swelling of the optic nerves (papilledema), which can be detected by examining the back of the eye, a standard part of a neurological and ophthalmological examination. However, some people with increased pressure do not have papilledema and they are the ones who present a diagnostic challenge. This condition is also called pseudotumor cerebri because tumors also raise intracranial pressure. To measure the pressure a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) is performed. The cerebrospinal fluid circulates around the brain, within its ventricles and around the spinal cord. Putting a needle into the spinal fluid at the lumbar spine level is much safer than anywhere else and gives the reading of the pressure everywhere within this enclosed space, including the brain.

Factors that predispose to increased intracranial pressure include delayed effects of a head trauma, certain medications, excessive amounts of vitamin A, obesity, and other. One of the more recent theories suggests that narrowing of the veins that drain blood from the brain is responsible for this condition. This diagnosis is made by performing an angiogram or a magnetic resonance venogram (MRV, a test done by an MRI machine), tests that show blood vessels.

In addition to headaches, increased pressure can cause nausea, dizziness, pulsating noise in the ears, and blurred vision. If left untreated, the increased pressure can lead to loss of vision.

If no obvious causes are found the condition is called idiopathic intracranial hypertension. Its treatment begins with the attempts to lose weight if the person is overweight. Pregnant women who are more prone to develop this condition often obtain relief after the delivery. Medications that can help include acetazolamide (Diamox) and topiramate (Topamax). If medications are ineffective a neurosurgeon can place a shunt that drains cerebrospinal fluid into the abdomen. This is a relatively simple procedure, but it does carry a risk of infections and other complications. Shunting is reserved for patients who have uncontrollable headaches or are threatened with loss of vision.

Art Credit: JulieMauskop.com

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