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Learning About Chiari Malformations

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. In a Chiari malformation, a small part of the 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?

Some people do not have symptoms. A Chiari malformation may be found during imaging testing, such as an MRI, while looking for something else.

If symptoms do happen, they might include:

  • A headache. The pain may be worse with coughing, sneezing, or activity.
  • Neck pain.
  • Loss of a sense of hot or cold in the arms and upper body.
  • Loss of strength in the muscles in the arms and hands.
  • Problems with swallowing, or hoarseness.

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

How is it treated?

If you don't have any symptoms, treatment usually isn't needed. If you have pain, you 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 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 you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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