Cerebral Edema


Cerebral edema is swelling that occurs in the brain, often following a traumatic brain injury. The swelling is caused by an accumulation of excess fluid in the brain tissues. Unlike edema that affects other parts of the body, cerebral edema is considered an emergency situation and can be life-threatening unless treated promptly.


  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty walking
  • Dizziness
  • Intense or persistent headache
  • Irregular breathing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Mood changes
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Vision loss or changes


In most cases, cerebral edema is caused by an injury or illness and cannot be prevented.

Risk Factors

  • Brain hemorrhage
  • High altitudes
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Viral or bacterial infection


  • Medical history and symptom review. A cerebral edema is often diagnosed while you are being treated for another medical condition, such as stroke or a brain injury. Your medical provider will carefully review the symptoms you’re experiencing and ask about when and how they began.
  • Physical examination. After analyzing your symptoms, your provider will then perform a comprehensive physical exam.
  • Additional testing. Because cerebral edema and intracranial pressure are not visible outside the body, your medical provider will order additional testing. This will include blood tests to help determine the underlying cause of edema, along with imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI to identify where the edema is located in the brain.


  • Once your provider has identified that you have an edema, he or she will look to verify the cause of the edema.
  • Based on the underlying cause of the cervical edema, treatment may involve multiple therapies. Medication to reduce swelling is typically a first-line treatment to help alleviate the edema.
  • Osmotherapy is also an option and is a technique used to draw water out of the brain, improving blood circulation and reducing swelling and intracranial pressure.
  • When less-invasive options are unsuccessful, a medical provider may turn to ventriculostomy or a surgical procedure to reduce intracranial pressure. During a ventriculostomy, fluid is drained from the brain, while a surgical procedure would involve removal of part of the skull or the source of the swelling.

Follow-up Care

Because brain swelling is typically the byproduct of another medical condition, how long you need to stay in the hospital will depend on that condition and the treatment you underwent, along with the severity of your edema.

Your medical provider will outline a specific plan for post-surgical care, including guidance about what is and isn’t safe.

Take specific steps to protect your brain following a cerebral edema by following medical instructions, not smoking, wearing a helmet when performing certain activities and controlling chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure.