Chiari Malformation 

Updated: Sep 27, 2018
Author: Peyman Pakzaban, MD; Chief Editor: Brian H Kopell, MD 

Overview

Practice Essentials

Chiari malformations, types I-IV, refer to a spectrum of congenital hindbrain abnormalities affecting the structural relationships between the cerebellum, brainstem, the upper cervical cord, and the bony cranial base.[1, 2, 3, 4]  (See the images below.)

Although Cleland described the first cases of Chiari malformation in 1883, the disorder is named after Hans Chiari, an Austrian pathologist, who classified Chiari malformations into types I through III in 1891. Chiari's colleague, Julius Arnold, made additional contributions to the definition of Chiari II malformation.[5] In his honor, students of Dr. Arnold later named the type II malformation Arnold-Chiari malformation. Other investigators later added the type IV malformation.

It is not at all clear that the 4 types of Chiari malformation represent a disease continuum corresponding to a single disorder. The 4 types (particularly types III and IV) are increasingly believed to have different pathogenesis and share little in common other than their names. Chiari type I malformation is the most common and the least severe of the spectrum, often diagnosed in adulthood. Chiari type II malformation is less common and more severe, almost invariably associated with myelomeningocele. Chiari type III and IV malformations are exceedingly rare and generally incompatible with life and are, therefore, of scant clinical significance.

Classification is based on the morphology of the malformations[4] :

  • Chiari I: >5mm descent of the caudal tip of cerebellar tonsils past the foramen magnum.  
  • Chiari II: brainstem, fourth ventricle, and >5 mm descent of the caudal tip of cerebellar tonsils past the foramen magnum with spina bifida. 
  • Chiari III: herniation of the cerebellum with or without the brainstem through a posterior encephalocele.
  • Chiari IV: Cerebellar hypoplasia or aplasia with normal posterior fossa and no hindbrain herniation.

This article discusses Chiari type I and II malformations with emphasis on the more common Chiari I malformation.

MRI is the most useful and most widely used imaging study for diagnosing Chiari malformation. CSF flow analysis through foramen magnum with phase-contrast cine MRI helps distinguish symptomatic Chiari I from asymptomatic cerebellar ectopia[6] and helps predict response to surgical decompression.[7]  Other potentially useful tests include myelography as an alternative in patients in who cannot undergo MRI, and CT or radiographs of the neck and head, which may help reveal common associated bony defects, particularly of the craniocervical junction.[4, 8, 6, 7]

Patients with Chiari I malformations who have minimal or equivocal symptoms without syringomyelia can be treated conservatively. Mild neck pain and headaches can be treated with analgesics, muscle relaxants, and occasional use of a soft collar. Frankly symptomatic patients should be offered surgical treatment. The goals of surgical treatment are decompression of cervicomedullary junction and restoration of normal CSF flow in the region of foramen magnum.[9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16]

The most common complications of Chiari decompression are pseudomeningocele formation and CSF leakage.[17, 18, 16]  Chiari I patients may have an increased risk of concussion and postconcussion syndrome.[19]

 

T2 hyperintense region on MRI (arrow) depicting ed T2 hyperintense region on MRI (arrow) depicting edema in central cord region of a patient with Chiari I malformation. Left untreated, this patient is likely to develop cavitation of the edematous central cord, resulting in syringomyelia.
CSF hypotension syndrome: Postcontrast MRI before CSF hypotension syndrome: Postcontrast MRI before (A) and after (B) treatment with lumbar epidural blood patch. Notice the thick meningeal enhancement (arrows), the relative paucity of CSF in front of the brainstem and behind the cerebellar tonsils, and the engorgement of the pituitary gland before treatment (A). Notice reversal of these abnormalities and ascent of the cerebellar tonsils after treatment (B). In this case, an acquired Chiari malformation was not present, but in some cases it is.

Problem

Chiari type I malformation is the most common and the least severe of the spectrum, often diagnosed in adulthood. Its hallmark is caudal displacement of peglike cerebellar tonsils below the level of the foramen magnum, a phenomenon variably referred to as congenital tonsillar herniation, tonsillar ectopia, or tonsillar descent. The resultant impaction of the foramen magnum, compression of the cervicomedullary junction by the ectopic tonsils, and interruption of normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) through the region produce the clinical syndrome.

Sagittal and coronal MRI images of Chiari type I m Sagittal and coronal MRI images of Chiari type I malformation. Note descent of cerebellar tonsils (T) below the level of foramen magnum (white line) down to the level of C1 posterior arch (asterisk).
Axial MRI image at the level of foramen magnum in Axial MRI image at the level of foramen magnum in Chiari type I malformation. Note crowding of foramen magnum by the ectopic cerebellar tonsils (T) and the medulla (M). Also note the absence of cerebrospinal fluid.
Intraoperative photograph of Chiari type 1 malform Intraoperative photograph of Chiari type 1 malformation showing descent of cerebellar tonsils well below the level of foramen magnum.

Chiari type II malformation is less common and more severe, almost invariably associated with myelomeningocele. Because of its greater severity, it becomes symptomatic in infancy or early childhood. Its hallmark is caudal displacement of lower brainstem (medulla, pons, 4th ventricle) through the foramen magnum. Symptoms arise from dysfunction of brainstem and lower cranial nerves.

Chiari type III and IV malformations are exceedingly rare and generally incompatible with life and are, therefore, of scant clinical significance. The type III malformation refers to herniation of cerebellum into a high cervical myelomeningocele,[20] whereas type IV refers to cerebellar agenesis.

Importantly, it is not at all clear that the 4 types of Chiari malformation represent a disease continuum corresponding to a single disorder. The 4 types (particularly types III and IV) are increasingly believed to have different pathogenesis and share little in common other than their names.

Epidemiology

The most common Chiari malformation is type I and has been estimated to occur in 1 in 1000 births. The majority of these cases are asymptomatic. Chiari malformations are often detected coincidently among patients who have undergone diagnostic imaging for unrelated reasons.[21]  There is a slight female predominance of 1.3:1. Chiari II is associated with neural tube defects, particularly myelomeningocele, in around 100% of cases.[4, 15, 22, 23]

Although Chiari malformation is still listed as a rare disease by the Office of Rare Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, this categorization is based on outdated data from before the MRI era. With routine use of MR imaging, Chiari malformation is discovered with increasing frequency. For Chiari I, prevalence rates of 0.1-0.5% with a slight female predominance have been suggested.[24] Chiari II is found in all children with myelomeningocele, although less than one third develop symptoms referable to this malformation.[22, 15]

In an analysis of patients with Chiari I over a 14-year period in the United States, 34% of Chiari I decompression operations were performed in patients younger than 20 years. Of adult patients who underwent decompression, 78% were female, whereas only 53% of children were female. The rate of decompression surgery increased 51% in younger patients from the first half to the second half of the study period and increased 28% in adult patients (20-65 yr of age).[15]

Etiology

Based on analysis of familial aggregation, a genetic basis for Chiari I has been suggested.[25, 26] Recent studies suggest linkage to chromosomes 9 and 15.[27] It is hypothesized that Chiari type I originates as a disorder of para-axial mesoderm, which subsequently results in formation of a small posterior fossa. The development of the cerebellum within this small compartment results in overcrowding of the posterior fossa, herniation of the cerebellar tonsils, and impaction of the foramen magnum. This theory is consistent with the observed association of Chiari I and other hereditary mesodermal connective tissue disorders, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.[28]

Theories regarding embryogenesis of Chiari II malformation must take into account its invariable association with myelomeningocele. An attractive theory is the "CSF loss" theory. It is hypothesized that escape of fluid through the open placode in myelomeningocele results in an inadequate stimulus for mesenchymal condensation at the skull base. The disordered and inadequate growth of the posterior fossa results in upward herniation of vermis, downward herniation of brainstem, and distortion of tectum (tectal beaking). Furthermore, collapse of the developing ventricular system because of fluid loss results in associated abnormalities such as agenesis of corpus callosum and enlargement of massa intermedia.[22]

Pathophysiology

Symptoms of Chiari I develop as a result of 3 pathophysiological consequences of the disordered anatomy: (1) compression of medulla and upper spinal cord, (2) compression of cerebellum, and (3) disruption of CSF flow through foramen magnum. Compression of cord and medulla may result in myelopathy and lower cranial nerve and nuclear dysfunction. Compression of cerebellum may result in ataxia, dysmetria, nystagmus, and dysequilibrium. Disruption of CSF flow through foramen magnum probably accounts for the most common symptom, pain.

Accordingly, headache and neck pain in Chiari I are often exacerbated by cough and Valsalva maneuver. Hydrocephalus occurs less frequently. Furthermore, the disordered flow of CSF through foramen magnum may result in formation of syringomyelia and central cord symptoms such as hand weakness and dissociated sensory loss. These symptoms are usually asymmetrical, as a syrinx has a tendency to develop in the side of the spinal cord that is more significantly affected by tonsillar ectopia.[29]

T2 hyperintense region on MRI (arrow) depicting ed T2 hyperintense region on MRI (arrow) depicting edema in central cord region of a patient with Chiari I malformation. Left untreated, this patient is likely to develop cavitation of the edematous central cord, resulting in syringomyelia.

The pathophysiology of Chiari II is more complex. Although compressive mechanisms likely play a role, as in Chiari I, additional mechanisms may be operative in Chiari II. Stretching of abnormally oriented cranial nerves is believed to play a role. Chiari II may become acutely symptomatic with shunt malfunction, presumably because hydrocephalus further exacerbates the downward displacement of brainstem and stretching of cranial nerves. It has been suggested that irreversible ischemia of brainstem under tension may be responsible for the poorer prognosis of Chiari II after surgery compared with Chiari I. Furthermore, intrinsic neuroembryological abnormalities in Chiari II are widespread and not limited to the posterior fossa (eg, heterotopias, gyral abnormalities, callosal and thalamic abnormalities, in addition to hydrocephalus and myelomeningocele), further complicating the pathophysiology of this disorder.

Presentation

The clinical and patho-anatomical features and differences between Chiari I and II malformations are summarized in Table 1 below.[22, 28, 1, 30]

Table 1. Comparison of Chiari I and II Malformations (Open Table in a new window)

Characteristic

Chiari I

Chiari II

Usual age of diagnosis

Adults and older children

Infants and young children

Clinical findings

  • Headache and neck pain (worsened by cough or Valsalva maneuver)

  • Myelopathy

  • Cerebellar symptoms

  • Lower brainstem symptoms (eg, dysarthria, dysphagia, downbeat nystagmus)

  • Central cord symptoms (eg, hand weakness, dissociated sensory loss, cape anesthesia)

  • In infants, signs of brainstem dysfunction predominate: swallowing/feeding difficulties, stridor, apnea, weak cry, nystagmus

  • Weakness of extremities

Primary anatomical abnormalities

  • Herniation of cerebellar tonsils through foramen magnum, producing compression of cervicomedullary junction

  • Herniation of lower brainstem through foramen magnum

  • Cephalad course of cranial nerves

  • Kinking of cervicomedullary junction

  • "Beaking" of tectum

  • Upward herniation of vermis through incisura

  • Nearly vertical tentorium

Myelomeningocele

No

Always

Hydrocephalus

Less than 10% of cases

Very common

Syringomyelia

30-70%

Common

Associated abnormalities

  • Craniocervical hypermobility syndromes

  • Klippel-Feil anomaly

  • Hereditary connective tissue disorders and neurofibromatosis type II

  • Callosum corpus pellucidum septum of agenesis

  • Hypoplasia or

  • Enlargement of massa intermedia

  • Heterotopias and gyral abnormalities

Shared associated abnormalities

  • Basilar invagination

  • Occipitalization of atlas

  • Bifida of C1 posterior arch

  • Foramen magnum variant anatomy

  • Basilar invagination

  • Occipitalization of atlas

  • Bifida of C1 posterior arch

  • Foramen magnum variant anatomy

 

Occipitalization of atlas in a patient with Chiari Occipitalization of atlas in a patient with Chiari I.

Indications

In Chiari I, radiographic presence of tonsillar herniation must correlate with appropriate clinical signs and symptoms before surgical intervention is undertaken. In frankly symptomatic patients, such as those with lower cranial nerve dysfunction, myelopathy, syringomyelia, cerebellar symptoms, or severe post-tussive suboccipital headaches, the decision in favor of surgery is straightforward. Difficulty arises in minimally symptomatic patients or those with equivocal symptoms. CSF flow studies across foramen magnum with phase-contrast cine MRI (see Imaging Studies) may help with surgical decision-making in these cases.

Syringomyelia generally improves or resolves after surgical treatment of Chiari malformation. Rarely is shunting of the Chiari syrinx necessary.

Resolution of syringomyelia (asterisk) after decom Resolution of syringomyelia (asterisk) after decompression of Chiari I malformation (white arrow).

Asymptomatic patients without syringomyelia whose Chiari I malformation has been discovered incidentally on MR imaging do not require surgery. In this group, if the radiographic abnormality appears significant, the patient should be educated about the disorder and asked to seek medical care should symptoms develop in the future.

In Chiari II, when neurological decompensation occurs, the first order of business is to treat hydrocephalus and rule out shunt malfunction. If evidence of brainstem dysfunction is present in spite of well-treated hydrocephalus and a functioning shunt, surgical decompression of Chiari II is undertaken.

Relevant Anatomy

The foramen magnum is an oval-shaped opening in the occipital bone, surrounded anteriorly by the clivus, laterally by the occipital condyles, and posteriorly by the squamous portion of the occipital bone. Normally, only the medulla traverses through the foramen magnum and merges seamlessly with the cervical cord. The lower extension of cisterna magna normally forms a large CSF cushion behind the medulla within the foramen magnum. This CSF cushion is replaced by cerebellar tonsils in Chiari I malformation.

Anatomical knowledge of the foramen magnum dura and its venous sinuses is of particular importance in surgical treatment. The dura that is applied to the inner surface of the squamous portion of occipital bone funnels abruptly into a cylindrical tube at the level of foramen magnum. The squamous occipital dura is bisected vertically by the cerebellar falx. The depth of cerebellar fax between the cerebellar hemispheres diminishes near the foramen magnum. The occipital sinus runs down from the torcula in the trigone formed by the dural leaflets of cerebellar falx and squamous occipital dura. As it approaches the foramen magnum, the occipital sinus divides into two divergent limbs which course laterally around the foramen magnum to join the sigmoid sinuses or the jugular bulbs.

During surgery, dural openings across the foramen magnum are carried out in a Y-shaped fashion in order to avoid the deep part of cerebellar falx and the vertical midline portion of occipital sinus. The two lower limbs of the occipital sinus are transected individually by the two oblique limbs of the Y-shaped incision.

Contraindications

Surgical decompression of foramen magnum is contraindicated when tonsillar herniation is caused by etiologies other than Chiari malformation, such as mass lesions in the posterior fossa or CSF hypotension syndrome.

Mass lesions in the posterior fossa can result in tonsillar herniation. The correct diagnosis can be missed if tonsillar herniation has been diagnosed by a cervical spine MRI, which has not adequately visualized all of the posterior fossa. Alternatively, if the patient could not have an MRI and the diagnosis has been made with a noncontrast CT or CT-myelography, the mass lesion can be missed. Clearly, treating the tonsillar herniation without addressing the mass lesion would be contraindicated.

CSF hypotension syndrome can result in tonsillar herniation. Frequently, these patients complain of headache and neck pain. They may even present with cranial nerve dysfunction, mimicking the symptoms of Chiari malformation. The correct diagnosis can be made with careful attention to the history and radiographic findings. Patients with CSF hypotension syndrome usually present with postural headaches, worse with standing and relieved by rest. MRI shows deflation of the prepontine cistern and sagging of the brainstem against the clivus. Unlike Chiari, the posterior fossa volume is normal. Most dramatically, postcontrast MRI reveals intense dural enhancement throughout the cranium due to venous engorgement, facilitating the diagnosis. Patients with CSF hypotension syndrome are treated with epidural blood patches. If MRI is repeated after clinical improvement, correction of tonsillar ectopia is noted.

CSF hypotension syndrome: Postcontrast MRI before CSF hypotension syndrome: Postcontrast MRI before (A) and after (B) treatment with lumbar epidural blood patch. Notice the thick meningeal enhancement (arrows), the relative paucity of CSF in front of the brainstem and behind the cerebellar tonsils, and the engorgement of the pituitary gland before treatment (A). Notice reversal of these abnormalities and ascent of the cerebellar tonsils after treatment (B). In this case, an acquired Chiari malformation was not present, but in some cases it is.
 

Workup

Imaging Studies

MRI is the most useful and most widely used imaging study for diagnosing Chiari malformation. In addition to depicting the anatomy of the craniocervical junction, it provides useful information about associated abnormalities, such as syringomyelia and hydrocephalus.[8]

Patients who cannot undergo MRI can be evaluated with CT-myelography/cisternography. However, the increasing availability of high-resolution high-speed (eg, 64-slice) CT scanners allows for making the diagnosis with a noncontrast CT with sagittal reconstructions, obviating the need for myelography.

CSF flow analysis through foramen magnum with phase-contrast cine MRI helps distinguish symptomatic Chiari I from asymptomatic cerebellar ectopia[6] and helps predict response to surgical decompression.[7]

CSF flow study with phase-contrast cine MRI. Brain CSF flow study with phase-contrast cine MRI. Brain pulsations results in caudad and cephalad flow of CSF across foramen magnum during systole and diastole. The reversal in the direction of flow is picked up by alternating light and dark appearance of CSF in front and behind the medulla and upper spinal cord on phase-contrast cine MRI. In this case of Chiari I malformation, note the complete absence of CSF flow behind (arrowheads) and focal constriction of CSF flow (arrows) in front of cervicomedullary junction.

Laboratory Studies

Lab studies are not applicable for diagnosing Chiari malformations.

Preparation for surgery for Chiari I decompression is the same as for any elective surgery and depends on the patient's general health. The author routinely obtains CBC, basal metabolic panel, PT, aPTT, chest radiograph, and ECG. Blood is typed and screened.

 

Treatment

Medical Therapy

Patients with Chiari I malformations who have minimal or equivocal symptoms without syringomyelia can be treated conservatively. Mild neck pain and headaches can be treated with analgesics, muscle relaxants, and occasional use of a soft collar. Frankly symptomatic patients should be offered surgical treatment.

A systematic literature review of symptomatic patients who did not undergo surgery found that headache and nausea still often improved, but ataxia and sensory disturbance did not show spontaneous improvement. Approximately 93% of asymptomatic patients with Chiari I remained asymptomatic, even if syringomelia was present.[31]

Surgical Therapy

The goals of surgical treatment are decompression of cervicomedullary junction and restoration of normal CSF flow in the region of foramen magnum. Considerable controversy has existed throughout the years about the surgical steps that are required to achieve these goals. The author's preferred technique of suboccipital craniectomy, cervical laminectomy, duraplasty, and arachnoid dissection is described below.

It has been noted in numerous studies that early surgical intervention is associated with better outcome in cases of symptomatic Chiari I malformation. Clinical series have advocated ample posterior fossa craniectomy, including suboccipital craniectomy and removal of the C1 posterior arch, for decompressing the cerebellum and the cerebellomedullary junction, along with an augmentative duraplasty. In cases of reoperation, arachnoid dissection may be advantageous for opening adhesions and thus restoring CSF circulation.[9]

In a study of 158 patients who underwent surgery, improvement was noted in 70% (111). In patients with less than 1 year of follow-up, 73% improved, compared to 79% with 1-3 years of follow-up, 67% with 4-7 years, and 61% with more than 7 years. The presence of myelopathic symptoms predicted the worst outcome (58% improved).[10]

A study of 95 pediatric patients (mean, 8 yr; age range,  9 mo to 18 yr) showed that appropriately selected symptomatic patients (eg, sleep apnea and dysphagia) and those presenting with syringomyelia should be considered surgical candidates because of the high rates of clinical (75%) and radiologic improvement (87.5%). In the study, 25 patients underwent posterior fossa decompression with either dural splitting or duraplasty, and 70 patients were managed without surgery. Over the course of follow-up, 20 (41.7%) of 48 nonsurgical patients who were symptomatic at presentation experienced improvement in symptoms, and 18 (75%) of 24 symptomatic surgical patients showed clinical improvement. Neither of the 2 patients in the conservative group with syrinx at presentation showed radiologic evidence of resolution of the syrinx, whereas 14 (87.5%) of 16 patients treated with surgery showed improvement or complete resolution of syringomyelia.[11]

In a study of endoscopic-assisted decompression in patients with Chiari I with or without syrinx, average preoperative and postoperative Karnofsky performance score was 78 and 93, respectively; average operative time was 130 minutes (110-190 minutes); and blood loss was 30 mL (20-180 mL).[16]

 

Preoperative Details

Preparation for surgery for Chiari I decompression is the same as for any elective surgery and depends on the patient's general health. The author routinely obtains CBC, basal metabolic panel, PT, aPTT, chest radiograph, and ECG. Blood is typed and screened. The patient is restricted to nothing by mouth (NPO) after midnight and admitted on the morning of surgery.

Thigh-high anti-embolic stockings and sequential compression devices are applied. Antibiotic prophylaxis with cefazolin or vancomycin is given within 1 hour of making the incision. Dexamethasone is given. Mannitol is not given. If adequate peripheral venous access cannot be established, a central venous catheter is inserted. A Foley catheter is inserted. An arterial line may or may not be inserted, depending on the anesthesiologist's preference. Intubation is carried out, with careful attention given to the extent of neck extension.

Intraoperative Details

The patient is placed on the operating table in prone position. The author avoids the sitting position because of the potential risks of venous air embolism, intraoperative hypotension, subdural hygroma or hematoma due to excessive CSF loss, and the awkwardness of surgical access. The head of the bed is elevated 20-30° and the arms are tucked by the patient's sides. All pressure points are padded. The abdomen and the male genitalia are allowed to hang free between parallel gel rolls.

The neck is flexed at the craniocervical junction and extended at the cervicothoracic junction. Adequate flexion at the craniocervical junction is of paramount importance to safe and expeditious access to the foramen magnum. The head is fixed in neutral position in 3-point skeletal fixation in a Mayfield head holder. A strip of hair is shaved along the midline of the occiput, extending above the inion. The area is prepped and draped.

A midline incision is created, extending from 2-3 cm above the inion to the upper cervical spine. A large pericranial graft is harvested from the upper pole of the incision. An adequately-sized pericranial graft is of utmost importance in achieving a satisfactory water-tight duraplasty. One must not hesitate to extend the incision superiorly, if this is necessary to harvest a proper graft.

The inion, the midline of the occiput down to the foramen magnum, the posterior arch of C1 and the upper aspect of C2 lamina are exposed. Additional laminae may be exposed, depending on the extent of tonsillar descent. Importantly, the muscular attachments to the superior nuchal line are left intact, but the muscles are stripped off the occipital bone just superior and lateral to the foramen magnum. Large epidural veins are encountered laterally between the occiput and C1 posterior arch. If bleeding occurs from these veins, it can be controlled with judicious use of bipolar coagulation and Gelfoam. The lateral exposure along C1 posterior arch may extend to vicinity of the medial rim of the sulcus arteriosus of the vertebral artery, but there is no need to expose that artery. The condylar emissary veins entering the occiput are generally too lateral to be of concern in this exposure.

A conservative suboccipital craniectomy is carried out from the inferior nuchal line to the posterior and lateral rims of foramen magnum. Occasionally, a prominent internal occipital crest extends deeply between the two cerebellar hemispheres' dura and must be resected with a small rongeur. Overzealous resection of occipital bone may result in cerebellar ptosis and should be avoided. The goal is to decompress the foramen magnum, not the entire posterior fossa. Removal of the bony edge of the foramen magnum must extend laterally until the lateral surface of foraminal dura is visualized. Similarly, a wide C1 laminectomy is carried out until the curvature of dura is appreciated. C2 and (rarely) C3 laminectomy may have to be carried out if the tonsils descend to those levels.

The dura is opened in Y-shaped fashion, with the oblique limbs of the Y transecting the paired inferior limbs of the occipital sinus. As the latter are transected, the dural edges are coagulated or oversewn. As the oblique Y limbs come together, the inferior extension of the cerebellar falx may have to be divided. The vertical limb of the "Y"-shaped incision extends down the midline of spinal dura. In patients with Chiari malformations, a tight dural band is often observed at the level of foramen magnum, constricting the dura. This is incised along the midline. The author prefers to then "T" the spinal dural incision transversely at the inferior extent of the Y. The dural leaflets are tented with sutures to the suboccipital muscles and fascia.

The cisterna magna arachnoid is opened under the operating microscope. The goal of arachnoidal dissection is to ensure unimpeded CSF flow through the fourth ventricle outlet and around the cervicomedullary junction, particularly in patients with syringomyelia. The arachnoidal adhesions between the two cerebellar tonsils and between each tonsil and the medulla are carefully divided to mobilize the tonsils superior-laterally and to expose the obex and floor of the fourth ventricle. Extreme care is taken to avoid injury to the tonsillar segments of the posterior inferior cerebellar arteries.

In a syringomyelic patient, if the tonsils are densely adherent to the medulla and cannot be readily resected, a limited subpial resection of the tonsils may be carried out. In a patient with high cervical syringomyelia or syringobulbia whose cervicomedullary neural tissue has been thinned down to a thin membrane, a limited midline myelotomy may be carried out to directly decompress the syrinx.

A careful watertight duraplasty is carried out using the pericranial graft harvested at the beginning of the operation. The intradural compartment is filled with warm saline before the last suture is tied. Any leakage is meticulously repaired. The duraplasty is covered with fibrin glue or DuraSeal glue. After the retractors are removed, meticulous muscle hemostasis is secured to avoid a postoperative epidural hematoma. The wound is then closed in layers.

Intraoperative photograph of duraplasty with peric Intraoperative photograph of duraplasty with pericranial graft. The duraplasty provides additional room for cerebellar tonsils at the craniocervical junction, while achieving closure of dura and prevention of cerebrospinal fluid leak.

Chiari II malformations are decompressed in a similar fashion, except that a multilevel cervical laminectomy may be required. No attempt is made to dissect the tightly adherent cerebellar tonsils from the brainstem in Chiari II.

Postoperative Details

The patient is carefully observed during the first 24 hours after surgery for any signs of brainstem dysfunction, particularly apnea, which is a rare but serious complication of Chiari surgery. In the author's practice, all Chiari patients spend the first postoperative night in the ICU. The patients are then rapidly mobilized and usually discharged home by the end of postoperative day 2, as long as they are neurologically intact, ambulatory, and able to eat without vomiting. Incisional pain and muscle spasms are common and are controlled with opiate analgesics and muscle relaxants. Some patients obtain partial pain relief by use of a soft cervical collar. Nausea and vomiting are also common and may prolong the hospitalization.

Follow-up

During postoperative visits, patients are questioned about persistence or improvement of their preoperative symptoms. The incision is inspected for CSF leakage and pseudomeningocele formation. A small pseudomeningocele presenting as fullness in the back of the neck is managed conservatively and often resolves after a couple of months. A large symptomatic pseudomeningocele may necessitate percutaneous drainage or surgical repair. Heavy lifting and strenuous exercise are avoided for the first 2-3 weeks after surgery. Recovery is usually complete in 4-6 weeks for those with good preoperative neurological function. Patients who started with a major neurological deficit require postoperative rehabilitation. Patients with syringomyelia undergo repeat MR imaging to confirm that the syrinx has responded to Chiari decompression.

Complications

The most common complications of Chiari decompression are pseudomeningocele formation and CSF leakage. Early detection and repair of CSF leakage prevent the more serious complication of meningitis.

Wound infection and meningitis are rare. Patients with a high postoperative fever for which no other etiology can be found undergo a lumbar puncture. A CSF formula consistent with bacterial meningitis warrants initiation of broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotic treatment while awaiting CSF culture growth. Aseptic meningitis is treated with corticosteroids.

In the immediate postoperative period, lower brainstem dysfunction, apnea, and epidural hematoma are rare but serious complications. Close observation of the patient in the immediate postoperative period is warranted.

Other rare complications include vertebral artery injury and increased neurological deficit as a result of surgical manipulation of the brainstem and the spinal cord or due to vascular occlusion.

Cerebellar ptosis may occur when a large suboccipital craniectomy has been performed and may result in recurrent interruption of CSF flow across the foramen magnum and recurrent syringomyelia.[32] Pre-existing craniocervical hypermobility syndromes and basilar invagination may worsen and may require craniocervical fusion.

Persistent symptomatic syringomyelia after adequate decompression of the cervicomedullary junction may require direct shunting of the syrinx.

In pregnant patients with Chiari I, epidural anesthesia should be performed with caution so as to prevent dural puncture, which could result in CSF leakage and aggravate symptoms. In cases of dural puncture, a blood patch should be immediately performed. In such patients, anesthetic agents such as fentanyl and ketamine can increase intracranial pressure and should therefore not be used.[33]

 

Outcome and Prognosis

Prognosis after surgery for Chiari I is generally good and depends on the extent of preoperative neurological deficits. Those with little or no neurological deficit, symptomatic primarily with pain, can expect an excellent outcome. However, individuals with severe and longstanding weakness and muscle atrophy are less likely to improve.

A systematic review of decompression surgery in adults for Chiari malformation with syringomyelia revealed that the syrinx persists after surgery at an average rate of 6.7% (range, 0-22%).[17] However, in all cases, the investigators observed a significant clinical improvement.

Future and Controversies

The main controversy is treatment of Chiari I malformation centers around the question of what surgical steps are necessary to achieve decompression of the cervicomedullary junction and restore CSF flow across foramen magnum. The most widely accepted approach consists of limited suboccipital craniectomy, C1 laminectomy, duraplasty and arachnoidal dissection as described above.[32] On the other side of the spectrum are recommendations for bony decompression without opening the dura.[34, 12]

Most surgeons who recommend this approach resect or incise the thick fibrous band that constricts the dura at foramen magnum without opening the dura. Some recommend serial incisions of the outer layer of the posterior fossa dura, with the expectation that this may expand the posterior fossa volume.[12] Others recommend opening the dura, but not the arachnoid, and then performing a duraplasty. Still others recommend keeping the arachnoid closed but leaving the dura open, without duraplasty.[13] Some recommend performing an occipitocervical fusion at the time of decompression, citing up to 19% rates of craniocervical instability in pediatric patients after Chiari decompression.[14]

Those who advocate the more conservative extradural and extra-arachnoidal approaches seek to avoid CSF-related complications (CSF leak, pseudomeningocele, aseptic meningitis), particularly in the pediatric population.[12] However, other studies indicate that the incidence of such complications is too low to justify a positionally suboptimal extradural decompression.[18]

The neurosurgery literature is replete with studies that support all of these approaches, but, unfortunately, most of the studies provide only class III or limited class II evidence. Prospective controlled trials are needed to compare the various techniques in adult and pediatric patients and in those with and without syringomyelia.

 

Questions & Answers

Overview

What is Chiari malformation?

What are the classifications of Chiari malformation?

How is Chiari malformation diagnosed?

What are the treatment options for Chiari malformation?

What are possible complications of Chiari malformation?

What is Chiari type I malformation?

What is Chiari type II malformation?

What are Chiari type III and type IV malformations?

What is the prevalence of Chiari malformation?

What causes Chiari malformation?

What is the pathophysiology of the Chiari type I malformation?

What is the pathophysiology of the Chiari type II malformation?

How are Chiari type I and type II malformations differentiated?

When is surgery indicated for Chiari type I malformation?

When is surgery indicated for Chiari type II malformation?

What is the anatomy relevant to Chiari malformation?

What are the contraindications to surgery for Chiari malformation?

Workup

What is the role of imaging studies in the diagnosis of Chiari malformation?

What is the role of lab studies in the evaluation of Chiari malformation?

Treatment

What is the role of medication in the treatment of Chiari malformation?

What are the goals of surgical therapy for Chiari malformation?

What is the efficacy of surgical intervention for treatment of Chiari malformation?

What is included in preoperative care for Chiari malformation?

How is surgery performed for treatment of Chiari malformation?

What is included in postoperative care of patients with Chiari malformation?

What is included in long-term monitoring following surgery for Chiari malformation?

What are the possible surgical complications of Chiari malformation?

What is the prognosis of Chiari malformation following surgery?

Why is surgery for Chiari malformation controversial?