Brain Swelling: Symptoms, Treatment, Complications, and Prevention


Brain Swelling: What is It?

Brain swelling, also called elevated intracranial pressure, brain edema, or cerebral edema, is a life-threatening condition where fluid develops in the brain.

This fluid builds up around the brain. This causes an increase in pressure (intracranial pressure).

This swelling or inflammation is how our body responds to an injury. Edema is swelling due to trapped fluid anywhere in the body. If this swelling occurs in the brain, it may cause serious complications. For example, it may restrict blood supply to the brain, so not enough oxygen reaches the brain. Lack of oxygen in the brain may cause damage in brain cells. In some cases, when the damage is irreversible, brain edema may be deadly.

What Causes Brain Swelling?

Causes associated with brain swelling are:

  • Ischemic stroke: it occurs when a blood clot restricts blood flow to the brain. This lack of oxygen damages brain cells and causes swelling and pressure.
  • Traumatic brain injury: it is an acute trauma (a vehicle accident or a fall).
  • Infection: it may be caused by bacteria or a virus. One infection that causes brain swelling is encephalitis. It may also be caused by meningitis, toxoplasmosis, and subdural abscess (empyema).
  • Brain tumor: since a brain tumor presses against other areas of the brain, it may prevent fluid from leaving the brain.
  • High altitude: it may occur in altitudes above 4,000 meters. This type of brain swelling is generally associated with severe AMs (acute mountain sickness) or HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema).
  • Brain hemorrhage: it occurs when a blood vessel ruptures and leaks, causing inflammation and an increase in ICP.

Symptoms of Brain swelling

Symptoms of brain swelling may vary according to the severity of this condition and the underlying cause. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty speaking or moving
  • Neck pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vision loss
  • Seizure
  • Memory problems

If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should consult your doctor, who will probably request:

  1. A CT scan or MRI of the head
  2. A physical exam of the head and neck
  3. A blood test
  4. A neurological exam

Brain Swelling: Treatment

If you have been diagnosed with brain swelling, you will require immediate medical attention to reduce the risk of permanent damage or death.

Treatments of cerebral edema depend on the severity of the condition and underlying cause, but they include:

  • Medication: you may be prescribed some drugs that reduce swelling or blood clots, like warfarin and aspirin (although aspirin is said to increase the risk of bleeding so it may not be recommended in some cases).
  • Hypothermia: this therapy involves lowering your body temperature, to reduce inflammation in the brain.
  • Surgery: a surgical procedure may be recommended to reduce ICP. It includes removing a part of the skull and repairing any damage, like a ruptured blood vessel. Another procedure that involves inserting a plastic tube into the skull to drain any excess fluid and reduce ICP is known as ventriculostomy.
  • Osmotherapy: it involves using medications to remove water from the brain. It increases blood flow to the brain, which reduces ICP.

Brain Swelling: Long-term Effects

What are the long-term effects of brain edema? Depending on the severity of this condition and the location of the injury, some effects that may be noticed are problems with:

  • Sleeping
  • Thinking and attention skills
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Movement
  • Communication skills

If you are dealing with one or more of these issues, contact your doctor to find out if these may diminish over time and if you require ongoing treatment.

Brain Swelling: Prevention

There are some actions you may incorporate to protect your brain. As you go about your daily activities, pay attention to the following tips:

  • Always wear your seat belt properly when you get in a vehicle.
  • If you ride your bike, skate, play a contact sport, or perform any other activity that may cause you to fall or hit your head, always wear a helmet.
  • Maintain and control your blood pressure.
  • Make sure you take all necessary measures to prevent heart disease.
  • If you travel to high elevations, let your body adjust to the altitude taking the necessary time.

Brain Swelling: Diet to Prevent It

The gut may help manage levels of inflammation. In other words, some experts suggest that keeping a healthy gut with the right foods contributes to keeping a healthy brain and reducing the risk of brain swelling.

Some dietitians recommend a ketogenic diet to reduce inflammation and prevent brain edema. The ketogenic diet is high in fat, and low in carbohydrates. It helps decrease blood sugar, which contributes to reducing brain inflammation. High levels of blood sugar promote inflammation and stress hormones.

Some ketogenic foods are MCT oil, olive oil, salmon, avocados, almonds and other tree nuts.

Some foods that reduce inflammation of the brain include:

  • Chia seeds: they contain omega-3 fatty acids. Sprinkle them on breakfast cereal, add them to smoothies and juices.
  • Avocados: they have vitamin E and monounsaturated fats (good fats), which help regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Green leafy greens: consume green leafy greens and broccoli. Kale and spinach promote brain health. Broccoli contains high levels of vitamin K. They all contribute to a healthy brain.
  • Coffee: in moderation, caffeine is associated with a reduced risk of brain inflammation and conditions like dementia.
  • Nuts: hazelnuts and walnuts protect the brain since they contain high levels of vitamin E and antioxidants.
  • Ginkgo Biloba and ginseng: consume these as nutritional supplements. They are associated with memory and brain health. They aid circulation, brain activity, and memory.
  • Cacao: it protects your brain since it has antioxidants and flavanols, which reduce inflammation. Consume it without fat and sugar.
  • Oily fish: consume fish, especially salmon. It has omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain health.

Incorporate these foods and visit your doctor if you need to clear any doubt!

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