A brain shunt is used to remove a buildup of excess cerebrospinal fluid on the brain. When excess fluid develops, it increases the pressure inside the skull and can damage the brain. Symptoms of increased fluid on the brain include a headache, vomiting, and seizures. Eventually, brain damage and death can occur.
Thousands of people in the United States live their lives with a brain shunt. Although a brain shunt saves many lives, it also has risks. Installation of the shunt system is a delicate surgery and often leads to complications. Even if surgery is successful, the shunt can fail, and problems can develop.
What is a Brain Shunt?
A brain shunt is a hollow tube that is surgically inserted into the brain to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid is directed to another place in the body where it is reabsorbed. In most instances, the fluid is re-routed to the abdomen.
Cerebrospinal fluid protects and cushions the brain. The fluid also delivers nutrients and removes waste from the brain. Normally, cerebrospinal fluid flows through the ventricles to the base of the brain. When the normal flow of fluid is disputed, it causes an increase in fluid and pressure, which can be harmful to the brain.
In most cases, a shunt is needed to treat hydrocephalus. According to the Hydrocephalus Association, about two babies out of every 1000 are born with hydrocephalus, which makes it about as common as downs syndrome.
Although hydrocephalus most commonly occurs in babies, it can also develop in children and adults. Usually, if it occurs later in life, it is caused by a head injury, brain tumor, or meningitis.
Brain shunt complications may arise — not necessarily due to negligence — and may include the following:
- Shunt infection: Staphylococcus Epidermidis, which is present on the skin, is the most common cause of a shunt infection. An infection can develop in the fluid, at the surgical site, or the shunt itself. Symptoms of a shunt infection may include a sore neck, headache, and fever. Babies are especially susceptible to develop an infection due to their immature immune system.
- Shunt malfunction: The shunt can also malfunction, which causes it to fail. According to the Hydrocephalus Association, about 50 percent of pediatric brain shunts fail within the first two years they are placed. Shunts may become full or partially blocked, which causes them to only function intermittently.
- Under or over drainage: The shunt may also under or over drain fluid. If the fluid is removed faster than it is produced, it can lead to over drainage. Draining the fluid too fast can cause the ventricles to collapse and lead to bleeding in the brain. If the fluid is underdrained, the pressure can build and lead to increased symptoms, such as a change in level of consciousness and possibly death.
Complications from a brain shunt can develop for a variety of reasons — some which are uncontrollable. For example, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Surgical Neurology International, in adult patients, factors that predicted survival and shunt complications included the patient’s age, length of hospital stay, and level of consciousness at presentation. Below is a non-exhaustive list of potentially life-threatening symptoms of brain shunt malfunction:
Preventable Complications and Failure to Timely Recognize Shunt Infections or other Complications
In some cases, complications may be preventable — and failure to recognize complications are also preventable, including the following:
- Inadequate design: The design of the shunt may be inadequate and lead to problems. For example, pieces of the shunt can become dislodged and remain in the skull, which can lead to complications. It’s important, especially if informed by your doctor that the shunt was possibly defective, to contact an attorney.
- Delayed Diagnosis or Treatment of Infection: If initial signs of a shunt infection are missed, the condition can become life-threatening. Inadequate monitoring or poor staff training can lead to missed symptoms and unreasonable delay in diagnosing and treating the condition.
- Delayed Diagnosis or Treatment of other Complications: Medical professionals — including nurses and doctors — especially in a hospital setting, are trained to recognize signs and symptoms of life-threatening brain shunt complications. If those signs are missed, and the complications are allowed to progress undiagnosed and untreated, the consequences can be catastrophic.
- Negligence during or after surgery: Shunt surgery requires careful monitoring during and after the procedure. Inadequate monitoring may be due to negligence. For example, draining the correct level of fluid is essential to a patient’s prognosis. Missing early signs of shunt problems can have devastating consequences.
A brain shunt can be lifesaving. But preventable complications can develop, leading to permanent brain damage or death. If you or a loved one suffered complications of a brain shunt due resulting in permanent injury or death due to suspected negligence, we may be able to help. Please call our office at 312-698-3694 to schedule a free consultation with one of our top-rated attorneys.