Chiari Malformation

Disease database

Chiari Malformation is a neurological condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. It occurs when the lower part of the brain, known as the cerebellum, extends into the spinal canal. This can cause a variety of symptoms, including headache, neck pain, balance problems, dizziness, vision problems, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, difficulty swallowing, ringing in the ears, and weakness in the arms and legs. Understanding the symptoms and treatment options for Chiari Malformation is crucial for those affected by this condition.


One of the most common symptoms of Chiari Malformation is a persistent headache. This headache is often described as a dull, aching pain that is located at the back of the head. It may worsen with coughing, sneezing, or straining. The headache can be debilitating and may interfere with daily activities.

Neck Pain

Neck pain is another common symptom of Chiari Malformation. The pain is typically located at the base of the skull and may radiate down the neck and shoulders. It can be constant or intermittent and may worsen with movement or prolonged sitting or standing.

Balance Problems

Chiari Malformation can affect the body’s ability to maintain balance. This can result in unsteady walking, clumsiness, and difficulty with coordination. Balance problems can significantly impact a person’s quality of life and increase the risk of falls and injuries.


Dizziness is a common symptom experienced by individuals with Chiari Malformation. It can manifest as a spinning sensation or a feeling of lightheadedness. Dizziness may be triggered by sudden movements or changes in position.

Vision Problems

Chiari Malformation can cause vision problems due to the compression of the brainstem and spinal cord. Individuals may experience blurred vision, double vision, or difficulty focusing. These visual disturbances can make it challenging to perform daily tasks and may require corrective measures such as glasses or contact lenses.

Numbness and Tingling in the Hands and Feet

Many individuals with Chiari Malformation experience numbness and tingling in their hands and feet. This sensation, known as paresthesia, is caused by the compression of nerves in the spinal cord. It can be accompanied by a loss of sensation or a pins-and-needles feeling.

Difficulty Swallowing

Chiari Malformation can affect the muscles responsible for swallowing, leading to difficulty in swallowing. This can result in choking or coughing while eating or drinking. It is essential for individuals with Chiari Malformation to be mindful of their eating habits and seek medical attention if swallowing difficulties persist.

Ringing in the Ears

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is a common symptom experienced by individuals with Chiari Malformation. The exact cause of tinnitus in Chiari Malformation is not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to the compression of nerves in the brainstem. Tinnitus can be bothersome and may interfere with sleep and concentration.

Weakness in the Arms and Legs

Chiari Malformation can lead to weakness in the arms and legs, also known as motor weakness. This weakness may be accompanied by a loss of muscle control and coordination. It can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks and may require physical therapy or assistive devices.

Treatment Options

While there is no cure for Chiari Malformation, there are treatment options available to manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. The most common treatment is surgery, which aims to relieve the pressure on the brain and spinal cord. During the surgery, a small portion of the skull may be removed to create more space for the cerebellum. In some cases, a shunt may be inserted to divert excess cerebrospinal fluid away from the brain.

In addition to surgery, individuals with Chiari Malformation may benefit from physical therapy to improve balance and coordination. Pain management techniques, such as medication or nerve blocks, can help alleviate headache and neck pain. Assistive devices, such as braces or canes, may be recommended to aid with mobility.

Tips for Managing Chiari Malformation

  • Stay informed about the condition and its symptoms.
  • Seek medical attention if you experience any new or worsening symptoms.
  • Engage in regular physical therapy to improve balance and coordination.
  • Practice good posture to alleviate neck pain.
  • Use assistive devices, if necessary, to aid with mobility.
  • Take prescribed medications as directed to manage pain and other symptoms.
  • Join support groups or seek counseling to connect with others facing similar challenges.

While Chiari Malformation can be a challenging condition to manage, with proper treatment and support, individuals can lead fulfilling lives. It is important to work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a personalized treatment plan and to advocate for your needs. By staying informed and proactive, individuals with Chiari Malformation can navigate the challenges of this condition and find ways to improve their overall well-being.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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