Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.

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It is possible that the main title of the report Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension is not the name you expected. Please check the synonyms listing to find the alternate name(s) and disorder subdivision(s) covered by this report.


  • pseudotumor cerebri
  • benign intracranial hypertension

Disorder Subdivisions

  • None

General Discussion

Intracranial Hypertension (IH) is characterized by increased pressure inside the skull. Intracranial means inside the skull and hypertension means high fluid pressure. Intracranial hypertension means that the pressure of the fluid that surrounds the brain (cerebrospinal fluid or CSF) is too high. Elevated CSF pressure often produces severe headache with visual difficulties, which, if left untreated can result in permanent loss of vision or blindness.

Pseudotumor cerebri and benign intracranial hypertension are both former names for IH, which are now considered inaccurate. These names do not adequately describe the disorder and downplay the seriousness of IH. There are two categories of IH: primary intracranial hypertension and secondary intracranial hypertension.

Primary intracranial hypertension, now known as idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), occurs without known cause. This form most often occurs in young, overweight, females in their reproductive years (ages 20-45).

Secondary intracranial hypertension has an identifiable, causative agent, including drugs

(such as tetracycline, lithium, Vitamin A-derived oral acne medications or excessive ingestion of Vitamin A, and oral or intrathecal steroids, growth hormone treatments), sleep apnea and certain systemic diseases such as lupus, leukemia, kidney failure (uremia), meningitis and dural venous sinus thrombosis. There is an association of IH and Chiari type I malformation. Many other causes have been suggested in the medical literature but have not yet been confirmed as true causes. It is critical in these patients to rule out an intracranial space occupying mass by neuro-imaging (CT or MRI).

Although many factors are known to trigger the disease, the mechanism by which IH occurs, in either primary or secondary forms, is not known. In many cases, either type of IH may be chronic.


The most common symptom is often an unbearably painful headache, sometimes associated with nausea and vomiting that is not relieved by medication. The headache often awakens the patient from sleep. Some patients are treated in the emergency room where a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is done as a last resort, to temporarily ease the headache. Measurement of the opening pressure is encouraged during these procedures.

The diagnosis is also confirmed by detecting a high spinal CSF pressure reading, usually greater than 250 mmH2O (200-250 considered borderline high) and normal laboratory and imaging studies including CT scans and MRIs. There is generally a normal neurological examination as well, although abnormal findings may be detected on eye examination. The eye findings may be subtle, and not noted in an emergency room evaluation. It is not uncommon to misdiagnose a patient with IH as simply having a refractory migraine headache, and be treated as such. Unlike Primary IH, Secondary IH patients may have abnormal scans and laboratory tests.

The high CSF pressure may cause the optic nerves to swell (papilledema). The optic nerve connects the interior of each eye, the retina, to the vision centers of the brain. The optic nerve transmits impulses from the retina to these brain centers. The earliest sign of papilledema on a visual field test is known as an enlarged blind spot. Abnormal CSF pressure can also affect the eye muscles controlling eye movements producing double vision, but this is an infrequent event. (All patients with presumed IH should have a thorough eye examination including visual field tests by an ophthalmologist or neuro-ophthalmologist).

Other common symptoms include transient altered vision, particularly on movement or bending over, intracranial noise (pulse synchronous tinnitus), stiff neck, back and arm pain, pain behind the eye, exercise intolerance, and memory difficulties.


In the idiopathic or primary type (IIH), obesity is a significant factor in women aged 20-35.

The many potential causes of secondary intracranial hypertension have been noted above. Note that in secondary IH, unlike IIH, obesity, gender, age and race are NOT risk factors, but may be present.

The mechanism by which IH occurs is not known, but several possibilities have been suggested. Most research supports the theory that there is resistance or obstruction to CSF outflow through the normal existing pathways in the brain.

Affected Populations

The incidence if IIH in the general population is thought to be about 1 per 100,000. In obese young females the incidence of IIH is about 20 per 100,000. IIH occurs in men and children as well, but with substantially lower frequency. Weight is not usually a factor in men and in children under 10 years of age.

The true incidence of secondary IH remains unknown because of the wide range of underlying causes and the lack of published surveys on the subject. Current statistics are not available on how many people have secondary intracranial hypertension.

Standard Therapies

Medical treatment consists of using drugs called carbonic anhydrase inhibitors to suppress the production of CSF. The most commonly used of the carbonic anhydrase inhibitors is acetazolamide. These drugs inhibit the enzyme system needed to produce CSF and control the pressure (by controlling the volume) to some degree. These drugs do not work in all cases and can have potentially serious side effects.

When medical treatment fails and vision is at risk, one of two types of surgery may be performed. Optic nerve fenestration is a procedure in which a small opening is made in the sheath around the optic nerve in an attempt to relieve swelling (papilledema). Implantation of neurological shunts (internal tubes) is used to drain CSF into other areas of the body.

Investigational Therapies

Studies of the treatment of intracranial hypertension, begun at SUNY Upstate Medical Center are being continued in the laboratories of:

Deborah I. Friedman, MD

Department of Ophthalmology

University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry

Rochester, NY 14642

The Intracranial Hypertension Research Foundation together with the Casey Eye Institute of the Oregon Health Sciences University maintain the IH Registry in which IH patients may voluntarily register. Registrants may participate (only with informed consent) in surveys and receive almost immediate news of clinical trials in which registrants may participate.

Because IH is a rare disorder affecting so few patients a central register is key to gathering epidemiological data and to notifying patients of a clinical trial of interest.

Interested persons can receive more information by contacting:

The Intracranial Hypertension Research Foundation

6517 Buena Vista Drive

Vancouver, WA 98661

Tel: 360-693-4473

Fax: 360-694-7062

Web: http//

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222

TTY: (866) 411-1010


For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:



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NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

P.O. Box 5801

Bethesda, MD 20824

Tel: (301)496-5751

Fax: (301)402-2186

Tel: (800)352-9424

TDD: (301)468-5981


Intracranial Hypertension Research Foundation

6517 Buena Vista Dr

Vancouver, WA 98661


Tel: (360)693-4473

Fax: (360)694-7062



Genetic and Rare Diseases (GARD) Information Center

PO Box 8126

Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8126

Tel: (301)251-4925

Fax: (301)251-4911

Tel: (888)205-2311

TDD: (888)205-3223


Madisons Foundation

PO Box 241956

Los Angeles, CA 90024

Tel: (310)264-0826

Fax: (310)264-4766



Chiari & Syringomyelia Foundation

29 Crest Loop

Melville, NY 11747

Tel: (718)966-2593


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