Craniosynostosis is a rare skull problem that causes a baby to be born with, or develop, an abnormally shaped head.

The irregular skull shape in craniosynostosis can cause persistent headaches, learning difficulties, eye problems and other symptoms. Most symptoms develop in later childhood.

The symptoms of craniosynostosis usually result from increased pressure within the skull, which is called intracranial pressure (ICP).

Different types of craniosynostosis can be described based on the areas of the skull affected and the resulting changes in shape.

Read more about the symptoms and signs of craniosynostosis.

How is craniosynostosis diagnosed?

Craniosynostosis can usually be diagnosed by a paediatrician (specialist in treating children) after a visual examination of your baby’s head.

Any severe distortions of the skull or face will be apparent, and the existence of ridges over fused sutures or misalignment of the ears also provide evidence of craniosynostosis.

An X-ray or CT scan of the skull may be taken to confirm a diagnosis. CT scans are usually only required to plan some types of surgery or if the diagnosis is in doubt.

If your child has other birth defects that suggest craniosynostosis may be part of a wider syndrome, a sample of their blood, hair or saliva may be taken and tested for any genetic mutations.

What causes craniosynostosis?

Craniosynostosis is the result of the premature fusion of different sections of the skull. This means the skull is unable to grow in affected areas.

When one area of the skull is prevented from growing, other areas may “overgrow” to compensate and limit the pressure developing around the brain. A lack of growth in some areas and compensatory growth in other areas will result in an altered head shape.

Craniosynostosis is usually classfied as either:

  • nonsyndromic – there are no other birth defects and the cause is unknown
  • syndromic – craniosynostosis is the result of one of several rare syndromes

A syndrome is a range of symptoms related to a common cause, which is usually – but not always – genetic.

How common is craniosynostosis?

Craniosynostosis is rare, affecting an estimated 1 in every 1,800 to 3,000 children. Three out of every four cases affect boys.

Nonsyndromic craniosynostosis is the most common form of the condition, accounting for 80-95% of all cases.

There are more than 150 different syndromes that can cause syndromic craniosynostosis, all of which are very rare. These include:

  • Apert syndrome – which affects 1 in every 100,000 children and disrupts the normal growth of bone before birth, resulting in deformities of the head, hands, feet and face
  • Crouzon syndrome – which affects 1 in every 60,000 children and disrupts the normal growth of bone in both the skull and the face, often resulting in severe facial disfigurement
  • Pfeiffer syndrome – which affects 1 in every 100,000 children and disrupts bone growth, resulting in deformities of the head and face; it also causes big toes, wide thumbs, and webbed hands and feet
  • Saethre-Chotzen – a genetic condition that affects around in 1 every 50,000 births and can cause a wide range of disfigurements, including facial defects

Treating craniosynostosis

The main treatment for craniosynostosis is surgery. This can either be carried out during the first year of your baby’s life, or delayed until later childhood.

The timing of the surgery is decided by doctors, in consultation with you.

Most children with craniosynostosis recover well after surgery and the appearance of their skull improves significantly.

However, around 1 in 15 children may have further problems with their skull’s development as they get older, which will require further surgery to correct.

Read more about treating craniosynostosis.

Symptoms of craniosynostosis

Treating craniosynostosis

Surgery is the main treatment for craniosynostosis, and when it’s carried out depends on your child’s condition and your personal preferences.

Sometimes the surgery is carried out later in childhood to reduce the likelihood of the operation needing to be repeated.

Earlier surgery may be recommended if there are problems inside the head or with the eyes and jaw, or for cosmetic reasons.

You should talk to your child’s doctors to decide when the operation should be carried out.

There are four NHS hospitals with specialist surgical units and teams with experience and expertise in carrying out this type of surgery. These are:

  • John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford
  • Great Ormond Street Hospital in London
  • Birmingham Children’s Hospital
  • Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool

Surgery for craniosynostosis is usually carried out by a team of two surgeons who each have their own speciality. These are:

  • a neurosurgeon – a specialist in the nervous system and brain
  • a craniofacial surgeon – a specialist in surgery of the face, head and jaws

The procedure

Open surgery

Open surgery for craniosynostosis is carried out under a general anaesthetic, which means your child will be asleep during the procedure and will not feel any pain.

The neurosurgeon will make an incision across the top of your child’s scalp. This will leave a scar, but it will be hidden by their hair. The neurosurgeon will remove affected areas of skull.

The removed pieces of bone are reshaped by the craniofacial surgeon before being returned to a normal position in the skull. The incision will then be sealed using dissolvable stitches.

Endoscopic surgery

In some cases, endoscopic surgery may be an alternative surgical treatment.

This involves inserting a long, thin flexible tube with a light and a camera on the end (endoscope) into the scalp. The suture is then opened to allow the skull to continue growing normally.

Endoscopic surgery for craniosynostosis is usually only used in children younger than six months as the skull has not yet fully hardened.

The advantages of endoscopy surgery can include a shorter operation and quicker recovery.

After the operation

Extra precautions always have to be taken in cases where surgery is carried out on the skulls of very young children.

It is therefore likely your child would be transferred to a high dependency unit (HDU) for one or two days after the operation so their condition can be carefully monitored.

Most children are well enough to leave hospital around five days after having open surgery.

After surgery, most children will only experience mild pain, but it is common for them to develop significant swelling around their eyes. The swelling can often prevent them from opening their eyes.

Your child may find this annoying or distressing, but the swelling does not present a health risk and should go down after a few days.

It is likely your child will be asked to attend regular check-ups after having surgery so the future development of their skull can be monitored.

The check-ups will be quite frequent at first, such as every six weeks, before becoming less frequent as your child gets older. Most children will only require an annual check-up once they reach the age of six.