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Inserting a shunt

Headaches are a common symptom of brain tumours, often caused by a build-up of the cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) due to the tumour blocking its flow around the brain. This build-up of CSF, known as 'hydrocephalus', causes the pressure inside the skull top rise, causing the headache.

A neurosurgeon may recommend that they operate to insert a tube, called a 'shunt', into your skull to drain some of the excess fluid away. (A shunt is sometimes called a 'ventricular catheter').

The shunt has valves to make sure that it takes fluid in the correct direction, away from the brain and towards other parts of the body that can easily absorb it, such as the stomach lining.

A shunt is not a cure for a brain tumour, nor does it treat the brain tumour itself, but it can help to improve symptoms by relieving the pressure in your child's skull.

If you need to have a shunt for a long period of time you will have regular check-ups to ensure that it is still working as it should and that it has not become blocked or infected.

You cannot see a shunt from outside the body, so other people will not know it is there unless they are told. You may be able to feel the shunt running down behind their ear.

If a shunt is part of your child's long-term treatment plan, it will usually be inserted in a way that allows for their growth. This means that they should not require new shunts as they grow.

Shunts can, however, have complications, such as becoming blocked, so you may need a number of shunts throughout your life. Speak to your health team about safety and being aware of the signs of blockage or infection.

Variable shunts

The settings on some shunts can be changed. This is so the level of fluid drainage can be altered, if needed.

Make sure you know the settings, if you or your child has a variable/programmable shunt. This can be important if an MRI scan is needed, as the magnets in the scanner may cause the settings to change. Knowing the settings will help you check the correct settings have been reset following the scan.

Shunt alert cards/bracelets

You or your child may wish to wear a medical alert bracelet to inform others that they have a shunt, if they ever need to have a scan not related to their brain tumour. Medical bracelets are widely available in a range of different designs.