cerebrospinal fluid

The Role of Cerebrospinal Fluid

The purpose of some parts of your body is to protect or maintain other parts. For example, the heart is encased in your ribcage and receives nutrients and oxygen from coronary arteries. In the case of your brain, it’s protected not just by your skull, but also by cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, which not only cushions the brain and spinal cord from injury but also delivers nutrients and removes waste from the brain.

CSF—which gets its name from “cerebro,” meaning “brain,” and “spinal,” referring to the spinal cord—is a fluid produced in a part of the brain called the choroid plexus, a network of blood vessels within cavities of the brain called ventricles. Even though CSF is produced by blood vessels, the fluid is actually clear because it’s created from blood plasma, which is 99 percent water.

As a barrier between the skull and brain, CSF helps the brain “float” inside your skull, making it seem as if it weighs only a fraction of what it actually does, and so it doesn’t press down on the bottom of your skull and crush the blood vessels located there.

Cerebrospinal Fluid as a Diagnostic Tool

Although healthy CSF looks as clear as water, it can be analyzed to learn many things about your central nervous system, much in the same way your blood is tested to learn about other aspects of your health.

Getting a sample of CSF is not as simple as a blood draw, where a needle is inserted into a vein in your arm, however. The most common way to get a sample of CSF is called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap:

  • A clinician inserts a needle into the space between two vertebrae in the lower part of your spine. (The insertion area will be cleaned and made numb with a local anesthetic first.) 
  • CSF is collected through the needle from your spinal canal. The procedure takes about a half hour.

Once your CSF is collected, it may be tested for the following:

  • Infections and inflammation including meningitis (affecting the meninges—the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain itself)
  • Autoimmune diseases (conditions in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body) such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (which can cause paralysis) and multiple sclerosis (which causes a variety of symptoms because it eats away at the protective covering of nerves) 
  • Cancers such as leukemia, which affects the blood and bone marrow
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Symptoms and Causes of Cerebrospinal Fluid Issues

In addition to being a source of information regarding conditions affecting the nervous system, CSF may directly cause symptoms and conditions that require treatment. This may be due to having too much or not enough CSF, often caused by a head injury.

  • Too much CSF: Having too much CSF is called hydrocephalus, also known as water on the brain, a serious condition that increases pressure on the brain and can damage the vessels that bring blood to the brain, resulting in a range of neurological symptoms. Though hydrocephalus can affect people of any age, it most commonly occurs in infants and older adults. Learn more about treatment for hydrocephalus. 
  • Not enough CSF: It’s also possible to suffer from a lack of CSF due to a tear or leak in the dura mater, the thick membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This can be the result of an injury or a complication of surgery in the area or lumbar puncture. That’s why it’s important to report any symptoms—which can include headaches that are worse when you sit up, nausea, sensitivity to light, stiffness in the neck, or (in rare cases) CSF drainage from the ear and nose—following these procedures.

    Symptoms of a lack of CSF usually improve on their own, but advanced cases could result in an infection, or not enough CSF for the brain to float correctly, causing pressure and potential damage on the vessels in the skull. In these cases, you need treatment immediately.

Make an Appointment with Dr. Woodall Today

Dr. Woodall has the skills and experience to treat conditions of the brain and spine related to the role of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Contact our office today.