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Learning About Chiari Malformations in Children

Inside view of the head, with detail of part of the brain pushed below the skull

What is a Chiari malformation?

A Chiari malformation is an abnormality at the base of head where the brain and spinal cord connect. Normally, the brain rests above an opening in the skull where the spinal cord passes through. When a child has a Chiari malformation, a small part of the child's brain is pushed through the opening. This puts pressure on the brain and can cause headaches, neck pain, and other problems.

A Chiari malformation is a congenital problem. This means that a baby is born with it. A baby born with this problem may also be born with other problems.

What are the symptoms?

A baby born with a Chiari malformation may not have symptoms. It may be found during imaging testing, such as an MRI, while looking for something else. And it may not be found until your child is older.

If symptoms do happen, they might include:

  • Pain in the head and neck. A baby may be fussy or cry a lot.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Trouble eating and slower than normal weight gain.
  • Trouble swallowing or hoarseness.
  • Scoliosis.
  • Sleep apnea.

Your child may have other symptoms such as problems with balance, dizziness, and blurred or double vision. Your child may also have numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.

How is it treated?

If your child doesn't have any symptoms, treatment usually isn't needed. If your child has pain, your child may get pain medicine. Or your doctor may recommend surgery. The goal of surgery is to relieve pressure and make more space near the base of the skull.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

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