Chiari Malformation: How Frequent Are the Headaches?

Patient laying on back entering CAT scan machine

Many patients with Chiari malformation are asymptomatic and may be unaware they have this condition. Yet, one of the most typical symptoms of Chiari malformation is a headache, which can be severe. The team at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO) in northern New Jersey is well-versed in diagnosing and treating people with this skull-based abnormality that affects the brain and spine. Learn more about the frequency of headaches in people with Chiari malformation.

What Is Chiari Malformation?

Chiari malformation is when the cerebellar tonsillar, the lowest portion of the cerebellum at the base of the brain, penetrates through the hole in the skull’s base. It may even enter the spinal cord. There are five grades of Chiari malformation: 0 through IV. Those with Chiari malformation type 0 may not have a herniated tonsillar but can suffer the same symptoms, such as headaches and neck pain that people with more severe types experience. Patients with Chiari malformation type I are often asymptomatic until adulthood and do not realize they have the condition until later in life, if ever.

Chiari malformation types II and III are rare, diagnosed during infancy, and can be life-threatening because the obstruction can cause cerebrospinal fluid to accumulate in the skull placing excessive pressure on the entire brain. Type IV is even rarer and nearly always fatal. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), a type IV Chiari malformation is identified when the brain of a fetus or infant fails to fully develop.

Symptoms of Chiari Malformation

Chiari malformation symptoms can range widely from person to person, even among patients with the same level or grade of abnormality. The most common symptom is headaches, which often manifest as continual or chronic occipital or migraine headaches. These severe headaches can occur in different areas of the cranium and even around the eyes but generally radiate from the base of the skull into the back of the head, neck, and upper back area. Many patients describe the pain as pulsating, or sharp and throbbing. Other symptoms of those who have Chiari malformation type 0 or I include:

  • Vertigo and balance issues: The descending cerebellar tonsils (which controls motor skills) are damaged or injured under the constant compression and spinal fluid accumulation associated with this condition.
  • Optical issues: These can include sensitivity to light, double vision, blurred vision, and involuntary eye movement.
  • Muscle weakness: This can be manifest as difficulty swallowing, speaking, and breathing, experiencing fainting episodes, and general muscle contractions or loss of muscle mass.

Additionally, those with Chiari malformation can also develop a cyst in the spinal cord or experience a widened spinal cord central canal. Both medical abnormalities can result in separate or similar symptoms to those mentioned above.

How to Avoid Triggering Symptoms

For those who are diagnosed, symptoms of Chiari malformation can be life-threatening or debilitating. Symptoms such as headaches can be triggered by simple things, such as sneezing or coughing. Though these simple reflexes cannot always be avoided, it is best for those with Chiari to try to minimize them.

There are other ways to minimize Chiari malformation symptoms that include:

  • Avoiding exertion and heavy lifting
  • Avoiding contact sports or strenuous activities
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Certain activities are best avoided to minimize the obstruction and further herniation of the brain and spine. Though Chiari malformation is mainly a result of genetics, it may worsen with arduous tasks, fatigue, or a high impact injury such as a motor vehicle accident.

Find Chiari Malformation Specialists at CNSO

The dedicated surgical team at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine, and Orthopedics (CNSO) understands how Chiari malformation can affect daily life. People who are looking for an explanation for unresolved headaches can trust the neurosurgeons and physicians at CNSO who routinely treat patients with this rare condition. CNSO offers multiple convenient locations spanning northern New Jersey, including Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Morris, and Hudson counties. To learn more about treatment for Chiari malformation and other spine and brain conditions, or to schedule a consultation, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics