Arnold-Chiari Malformation




Arnold–Chiari malformation, is a condition affecting the brain. It consists of a downward displacement of the cerebellar tonsils through the foramen magnum (the opening at the base of the skull), sometimes causing non-communicating hydrocephalus as a result of obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) outflow. The cerebrospinal fluid outflow is caused by phase difference in outflow and influx of blood in the vasculature of the brain.


  • Headaches aggravated by Valsalva maneuvers, such as yawning, laughing, crying, coughing, sneezing or straining, bending over, or getting up suddenly
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Lhermitte's sign (electrical sensation that runs down the back and into the limbs)
  • Vertigo (dizziness)
  • Nausea
  • Nystagmus (irregular eye movements; typically, so-called "downbeat nystagmus")
  • Facial pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Impaired gag reflex
  • Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep apnea
  • Sleep disorders
  • Impaired coordination
  • Severe cases may develop all the symptoms and signs of a bulbar palsy
  • Paralysis due to pressure at the cervico-medullary junction may progress in a so-called "clockwise" fashion, affecting the right arm, then the right leg, then the left leg, and finally the left arm; or the opposite way around.
  • Papilledema on fundoscopic exam due to Increased intracranial pressure
  • Pupillary dilation
  • Dysautonomia: tachycardia (rapid heart), syncope (fainting), polydipsia (extreme thirst), chronic fatigue

The blockage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flow may also cause a syrinx to form, eventually leading to syringomyelia. Central cord symptoms such as hand weakness, dissociated sensory loss, and, in severe cases, paralysis may occur.


Syringomyelia is a chronic progressive degenerative disorder characterized by a fluid-filled cyst located in the spinal cord. Its symptoms include pain, weakness, numbness, and stiffness in the back, shoulders, arms or legs. Other symptoms include headaches, the inability to feel changes in the temperature, sweating, sexual dysfunction, and loss of bowel and bladder control. It is usually seen in the cervical region but can extend into the medulla oblongata and pons or it can reach downward into the thoracic or lumbar segments. Syringomyelia is often associated with Chiari malformation type I and is commonly seen between the C-4 and C-6 levels. The exact development of syringomyelia is unknown but many theories suggest that the herniated tonsils in Chiari malformation type I form a "plug" which does not allow an outlet of CSF from the brain to the spinal canal. Syringomyelia is present in 25% of patients with Chiari malformation.


Chiari malformation type 2 typically occurs sporadically (in individuals with no history of the condition in the family). However, the exact cause of Chiari malformation type 2 is not known. Genes may play a role in predisposing an individual to the condition, but environmental factors (such as lack of proper vitamins or nutrients in the maternal diet during pregnancy) may also contribute to the condition. Because the cause is unclear, it is not currently possible to estimate what the recurrence risk for family members may be.

There have been reports in the medical literature of families in which more than one family member was affected with a Chiari malformation. However, a search of the available medical literature yields limited information specific to familial cases of Chiari malformation type 2. One article written by Lindenberg and Walker in 1971 describes the Arnold-Chiari malformation in 2 sisters; both also had hydrocephalus and meningomyelocele.


Diagnosis is made through a combination of patient history, neurological examination, and medical imaging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is considered the best imaging modality for Chiari malformation since it visualizes neural tissue such as the cerebellar tonsils and spinal cord as well as bone and other soft tissues. CT and CT myelography are other options and were used prior to advent of MRI, however they characterize syringomyelia and other neural abnormalities less well.

By convention the cerebellar tonsil position is measured relative to the basion-opisthion line, using sagittal T1 MRI images or sagittal CT images. The selected cutoff distance for abnormal tonsil position is somewhat arbitrary since not everyone will be symptomatic at a certain amount of tonsil displacement, and the probability of symptoms and syrinx increases with greater displacement, however greater than 5 mm is the most frequently cited cutoff number, though some consider 3–5 mm to be "borderline," and symptoms and syrinx may occur above that. One study showed little difference in cerebellar tonsil position between standard recumbent MRI and upright MRI for patients without a history of whiplash injury. Neuroradiological investigation is used to first rule out any intracranial condition that could be responsible for tonsillar herniation. Neuroradiological diagnostics evaluate the severity of crowding of the neural structures within the posterior cranial fossa and their impact on the foramen magnum. Chiari 1.5 is a term used when both brainstem and tonsillar herniation through the foramen magnum are present.

The diagnosis of a Chiari II malformation can be made prenatally through ultrasound.


While there is no current cure, the treatments for Chiari malformation are surgery and management of symptoms, based on the occurrence of clinical symptoms rather than the radiological findings. The presence of a syrinx is known to give specific signs and symptoms that vary from dysesthetic sensations to algothermal dissociation to spasticity and paresis. These are important indications that decompressive surgery is needed for patients with Chiari Malformation Type II. Type II patients have severe brain stem damage and rapidly diminishing neurological response.

Decompressive surgery involves removing the lamina of the first and sometimes the second or third cervical vertebrae and part of the occipital bone of the skull to relieve pressure. The flow of spinal fluid may be accompanied by a shunt. Since this surgery usually involves the opening of the dura mater and the expansion of the space beneath, a dural graft is usually applied to cover the expanded posterior fossa.

A small number of neurological surgeons believe that detethering the spinal cord as an alternate approach relieves the compression of the brain against the skull opening (foramen magnum), obviating the need for decompression surgery and associated trauma. However, this approach is significantly less documented in the medical literature, with reports on only a handful of patients. It should be noted that the alternative spinal surgery is also not without risk.

Complications of decompression surgery can arise. They include bleedings, damage to structures in the brain and spinal canal, meningitis, CSF fistulas, occipito-cervical instability and pseudomeningeocele. Rare post-operative complications include hydrocephalus and brain stem compression by retroflexion of odontoid. Also, an extended CVD created by a wide opening and big duroplasty can cause a cerebellar "slump". This complication needs to be corrected by cranioplasty.

In cases with brainstem dysfunction, anterior decompression may also be required. On April 24, 2009, a young patient with type 1 Chiari malformation was successfully treated with a minimally invasive endoscopic transnasal procedure followed by a posterior decompression and fusion by Richard Anderson and colleagues at the Columbia University Medical Center Department of Neurosurgery. This technique was later published by Hankinson and colleagues in the Journal of Neurosurgery.


  • NIH