Type I Chiari malformations are estimated to affect 1% of all children. Though the condition isn’t common, parents who know the signs and symptoms are prepared to recognize a potential problem and seek early treatment quickly.
The compassionate team at THINK Neurology for Kids works closely with parents and their children, putting children at ease while determining if they have a type I Chiari malformation. Then they create a treatment plan that’s customized to meet the unique health care needs of each child.
Here’s a rundown of Chiari malformations and the symptoms you may see if your child has the condition.
Type I Chiari malformation explained
The spinal cord leaves the bottom of your brain, goes through an opening in the base of your skull, and travels down the spinal canal.
Some children have a structural abnormality in their skull that allows a small part of the brain to push through the opening and into the spinal canal. This is called a type I Chiari malformation.
Of the four types of Chiari malformations, type I is the most common. Type I is a congenital condition (present at birth). However it can develop later in rare cases due to problems affecting the brain, skull, or spinal cord.
Top symptoms of type I Chiari malformation
The symptoms of a type I Chiari malformation vary from one child to the next. Though the symptoms can develop at any age, some children don’t have symptoms until adolescence or early adulthood.
When symptoms appear, headaches and neck pain are the earliest and most common problems.
In young children who can’t communicate their headache pain, parents may notice irritability, excessive crying, unusual fussiness, or loss of appetite.
At first, you may think the pain is an everyday headache, but a few signs raise red flags for a type I Chiari malformation. For starters, the headaches caused by a Chiari malformation keep recurring or become an ongoing problem.
Additionally, Chiari malformation headaches cause pain at the base of your child’s skull that often radiates to their upper neck. By comparison, a typical tension headache causes forehead or temple pain.
Type I Chiari headaches also feel worse when your child coughs, sneezes, laughs, or gets physically active. In many cases, the headache causes severe pain that’s sharp and throbbing.
Symptoms beyond headaches
Parents should be aware of other possible symptoms beyond headaches and neck pain. Your child may experience:
- Difficulty swallowing or gagging
- Gagging and vomiting
- Balance problems
- Hoarseness or trouble speaking
- Sleep apnea
Your child may have one or several of these problems, and their symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Symptoms caused by nerve pressure
A type I Chiari malformation may interfere with the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid circulates typically through a series of cavities in the brain and spinal cord. When the flow changes due to a type I Chiari malformation, the fluid can collect in cavities in the spinal cord.
The fluid buildup, called a syrinx, places pressure on the spinal nerves. Then your child can develop additional symptoms, including:
- Weakness in their arms or legs
- Numbness and tingling in their arms or legs
- Muscle stiffness
- Difficulty walking
- Chronic pain
- Diminished sensation of temperature
About half of children with a type I Chiari malformation develop a syrinx. These children also have a higher risk of developing an abnormal curvature of the spine called scoliosis.
With such a wide range of possible symptoms, the most crucial step is scheduling a complete neurological exam for your child at the first sign of a problem. After learning about your child’s symptoms and finishing a physical exam, we typically order an MRI or CT scan to view the structures in your child’s brain and spinal cord.
The treatments for type I Chiari malformation depend on the severity of the problem. However, they range from closely monitoring your child and watching for blockages in cerebrospinal fluid to pain-relieving medications and surgery to reduce pressure.
If you have any concerns about your child’s headaches or other symptoms, call the office or book an appointment online for a prompt evaluation.