As the world resolves to weather the COVID-19 storm, the primary question amongst those with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Chiari and Comorbids has become, “Do my conditions make me immunocompromised?”

While not all risks are equal amongst us, we do live with several factors originating from our condition(s), that can put us in the high-risk category. Doctors like to downplay our conditions, but the truth is that most doctors have no clue about what we REALLY deal with, and the ones that do admit that there’s still so much that the experts don’t understand. And so it is with COVID-19!

In Appendix A of a recent PDF entitled “Implementation of Mitigation Strategies for Communities with Local COVID-19 Transmission”, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) included: “Neurological and neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions [including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy (seizure disorders), stroke, intellectual disability, moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury].” [1] This encompasses the many EDS related brain and spinal comorbidities (Chiari, Craniocervical Instability, Atlantoaxial Instability, Subaxial Instability, Tethered Cord Syndrome, Syringobulbia, Syringomyelia, or even an intravertebral disc compressing the spinal cord, etc.).

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is grossly underdiagnosed, so there are thousands upon thousands of sufferers begging for help who aren’t getting the testing and help with the symptoms that they need from their medical professionals. Even once diagnosed, that’s all that most diagnosed patients get. No further workups or limited workups are done and comorbids (even life-threatening comorbids that would make them immunocompromised) are unidentified and left untreated.

 

SOME OF THE CONCERNS WORTH MENTIONING ARE:

 

1. EDS patients are more likely to suffer from rheumatological conditions than the general population, both autoimmune/inflammatory diseases (psoriasis, PsA, AS, RA, inflammatory eye disease, autoimmune thyroiditis, SLE, Crohn’s disease, pernicious anemia, and TRAPS) and non-autoimmune (fibromyalgia), but diagnosing these conditions require a workup. According to a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports, “The percentage of patients with at least one rheumatological condition was significantly correlated with the level of workup. No workup (physical exam only) = 9.2%; Limited work up = 33.3%, Comprehensive work up = 67.1%.” [2]

2. Many of us suffer from medullary and vagus nerve issues that can labor our breathing and compromise our ability to swallow correctly, which in turn makes us more susceptible to respiratory problems and complicating recoveries when sick. [3]

3. Many of us live with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (whether we’re diagnosed properly or not), which can increase respiratory issues and can further compromise our immune systems. [4]

4. EDS patients are far more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation (with and without elevated C-reactive Protein (CRP) and Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR)); chronically swollen lymph nodes; and chronically elevated white blood cell counts, all pointing to our immune systems being under distress.

5. With our faulty connective tissues, our blood-brain barriers tend to be thin and permeable, thus allowing a virus or viral antibodies to cross over and damage our arachnoid villi. [5]

 

 

ABOUT CoViD-19 & SARS‐CoV‐2

Pandemics are not new to the world or to the United States. Originally deemed “The Wuhan Virus,” because of its location of Wuhan City, China, the virus hit beginning in December of 2019. It then quickly spread beyond the city’s borders. “Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and medicines,” [6] by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). As more information rolled out, it became apparent that while it has shared commonalities with viruses from the past; mainly, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); it wasn’t the same – it had mutated. Several new names emerged, including Wuhan Coronavirus, 2019 Novel Coronavirus (a novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans [7]), 2019-nCoV. Medical researchers seem to have settled on two names that best describe the situation we’re facing.

  • CoViD-19 – Coronavirus Disease 2019 [6]
  • SARS‐CoV‐2 – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 – The virus that causes the Coronavirus Disease 2019. [6]

“Viruses, and the diseases they cause, often have different names. For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. People often know the name of a disease, such as measles, but not the name of the virus that causes it (rubeola).” [6]

As the pandemic has spread across the globe, they are seeing differences from one place to another, but there’s still so much that needs to be known, and in our “everything is microwavable” world, we aren’t good at waiting patiently. We saw the numbers of infections and deaths rise in China and South Korea (both highly populated countries), and then we all heard the news that the curve is flattening and that they’re seeing substantially fewer new infections and deaths. At the same time, we’re seeing the virus wave throughout Europe. Deaths in Italy (who had some hindsight and time for preparation, and a smaller population) have now exceeded the death toll in China. This beckons the question, “is it the same virus or is it still mutating?” Is CoViD-19-China, the same as CoViD-19-SKorea, CoViD-19-Europe, CoViD-19-USA? As they figure things out, they’re going to have to look at data coming out of each location and compare. But we’re going to have to use wisdom and be prudent, while we all await the answers TOGETHER!

Most Coronaviruses only cause mild respiratory diseases (such as the common cold). Two Coronaviruses, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoV (SARS‐CoV) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome CoV (MERS‐CoV) did not follow the “mild respiratory” pattern and instead, they caused prominent upper respiratory tract issues. SARS‐CoV‐2 is believed to be attacking the lower respiratory tract.

 

Prominent Symptoms of SARS‐CoV‐2 (based upon the first‐hand evidence from Wuhan local hospitals): [8]

Fever (83%‐99%)

Dry cough (59.4%‐82%)

Shortness of breath; respiratory distress (~55%), with more than half (~46% to 65%) becoming “acute, highly lethal pneumonia requiring intensive care. About 46% to 65% of the patients in the intensive care worsened in a short period of time and died due to respiratory failure.”

 

The symptoms can occur between 2 to 14 days after being exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus, based on the incubation period of MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus) viruses.

 

Other Symptoms Include: [8]

• Tiredness
• Aches
• Runny nose
• Sore throat
• Diarrhea

“Additionally, some patients with CoViD-19 have also [shown] neurologic signs, such as headache, nausea, and vomiting.” This is where it may get even more alarming for those of us that already suffer from neurological issues (and the thin blood-brain barrier demonstrated in EDS patients). With SARS‐CoV‐2 bearing so many similarities with SARS‐CoV and MERS‐CoV (and sharing the same beta coronavirus (βCoV) clade), they don’t know for sure where the similarities begin and end. Some coronaviruses are believed to “invade [the] brainstem via a synapse‐connected route from the lung and airways.” Both SARS‐CoV and MERS‐CoV now have supporting data demonstrating their ability to move beyond the respiratory tract and may invade the central nervous system. “The infection of SARS‐CoV has been reported in the brains from both patients and experimental animals, where the brainstem was heavily infected. Some coronaviruses have been demonstrated able to spread via a synapse‐connected route to the medullary cardiorespiratory center from the mechanoreceptors and chemoreceptors in the lung and lower respiratory airways.” [8]

SO, WHAT’S A MEMBER OF OUR COMMUNITY TO DO?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent CoViD-19, so the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person from close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

[Note: We have found an entourage of good ideas that might prove helpful. When the sources are known, they are provided. As information continues to become available, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be updating the list of recommendations on their site accordingly, so we encourage you all to stay informed by following them: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html.]

 

 

STEPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND OTHERS:

• Wash your hands often (every 20 minutes) with a lathering soap for at least 20 seconds before rinsing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands (both sides and between fingers), and rubbing them together until dry. [9]

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. [9]

• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. [9]

• Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces DAILY. If surfaces are dirty, clean them with detergent or soap and water, prior to disinfection. Then disinfect with a bleach solution (recommended ratio: 5 TBSP (1/3 cup) household bleach per one gallon of water OR 4 tsp household bleach per one quart of water. *Note: Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.), alcohol solutions using a minimum of 70% alcohol, or other common EPA-registered household disinfectants with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens (https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2). For more on disinfection guidance, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/cleaning-disinfection.html [9] Some research is encouraging that you pay particular attention to cleaning metallic surfaces (refrigerators, toasters, doorknobs, etc.) thoroughly as these surfaces might be allowing pathogens to remain and stay viable for up to 9 days.

• Cancel all non-essential appointments and stay at home, even if you have no symptoms of the virus unless you’re having a medical emergency. If you are having a medical emergency, call 911 and let them assist you in properly assessing the situation and helping you get help if it is a genuine emergency (this is a very different day in time and many local 911 centers ARE NOT dispatching for non-emergent calls).

• If you must leave the house for essentials (groceries, pharmaceuticals, etc.), assume that everyone that you encounter as potentially infected and protect yourself (masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, etc.) and practice social distancing (maintaining a 6 ft distance between yourself and others, as much as possible). If possible, designate one person in the household that is not in the high-risk category (under 60 years old with no pre-existing conditions that might increase their risk) to do the essential errands of the household. When they venture out for these essentials, they too should protect themselves (for their sake and that of the family that they will be returning to) with masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, etc., whenever possible. Whoever leaves the house should lather up in a shower or bath and wash their clothes immediately after returning home (BEFORE sitting down or touch things around the house). Thoroughly clean and sanitize the bathroom afterward.

• If you have symptoms, DON’T PANIC. Stay home and put distance between yourself and other people (even those in your own household). Avoid common places in the house as much as possible. Use a separate bathroom if you can. If you can’t, try and clean things behind you each time that you use it. DO NOT GO DIRECTLY TO THE EMERGENCY ROOMS UNLESS YOU ARE HAVING A LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY. If you fear that you need to go to the Emergency Room and you have time, call them first for advice and that will also allow them time to prepare for your arrival in a way that considers your safety and the safety of everyone that you may come into contact with while there. If you don’t think it’s emergent, contact your primary care doctor by phone or email and inform them of your symptoms so they can assess your risk factors and advise you accordingly. Everyone that gets sick shouldn’t expect a test kit, because they ARE in short supply. If you’re healthy enough to be treated at home and recover without complications, you might not ever know if you had CoViD-19 or not.

• Try to avoid the use of all anti-inflammatory treatments right now (including NSAIDs), without checking with your doctor first. There are studies coming out indicating that anti-inflammatory treatments might counter antiviral treatments. NSAIDs, such as aspirin and Ibuprofen, can take up to 10 days to pass out of the body. If you end up needing an antiviral treatment, you might not have the 10 days to wait. [10]

• Don’t smoke or vape ANYTHING, especially right now, as they can further compromise your airway and lungs, abstaining won’t stop you from getting the virus, but it might help reduce the possibility of complications if you do.

• Drink lots of hot (but not scalding) liquids (coffees, teas, soups, warm water) and try to take a sip of warm liquids every 20 minutes to help keep your mouth moist and help wash viral pathogens that might be in your mouth (some reports indicate that they can stay in your mouth for 3-4 days before entering your lungs) down into the stomach where the gastric juices can help neutralize it before it attacks the lungs.

• Gargle once a day with an antiseptic in warm water (like saltwater, lemon water, vinegar water).

• Eat fruits and vegetables and try to safely elevate your vitamin C levels and zinc levels to help your immune system as much as possible.

• It’s okay to listen to the news, but don’t let it absorb you. Check-in for an hour or so and then turn it off or tune it out and decompress your mind. Stress can manifest in our central nervous systems and that usually includes an increase in pain levels. So, turn off the televisions and put on a song or two that makes you hopeful and happy, even if it’s short-lived.

• Stay connected with others. Use this time of isolation as an excuse to call an old friend and see how they’re fairing through things.

• Stay encouraged and try to encourage others around you. For many of us with chronic pain conditions, self-isolation is a way of life, but for those around us, it may be a new thing and that can be frightening. It is okay to tell them that you understand because this has become much of your reality, but don’t just leave it there. Remember how hard it is/was for you to adjust and tell them about things that you found to help and pitfalls to avoid, and maybe you can make plans to try and get out together once this is all over. This might create an ideal opportunity to better understand one another and heal broken relationships if you are willing to rise to the occasion.

 

References: 

1 “Implementation of Mitigation Strategies for Communities with Local COVID-19 Transmission.” Center for Disease Controls, <www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community-mitigation-strategy.pdf>.

2 Rodgers, Kyla R., et al. “Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type Is Associated with Rheumatic Diseases.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 4 Jan. 2017, <www.nature.com/articles/srep39636>.

3 Henderson, Fraser C., et al. “Neurological and Spinal Manifestations of the Ehlers–Danlos Syndromes.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley &amp; Sons, Ltd, 21 Feb. 2017, <www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ajmg.c.31549>.

4 Cruse, Glenn, and Peter Bradding. “Mast Cells in Airway Diseases and Interstitial Lung Disease.” European Journal of Pharmacology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 5 May 2016, <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4637266/>.

5 Driscoll, Diana. “The Driscoll Theory: The Role of External Communicating Hydrocephalus, Mast Cell Disease and CCSVI as the Cause of POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) in Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.” The ILC Foundation, Apr. 2012, <www.theilcfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Driscoll_Theory_EDS_-_Online3.pdf>.

6 “Naming the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and the Virus That Causes It.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, <www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it>.

7 Commissioner, Office of the. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, <www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/mcm-issues/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-frequently-asked-questions>.

8 Li, Yan‐Chao, et al. “The Neuroinvasive Potential of SARS‐CoV2 May Play a Role in the Respiratory Failure of COVID‐19 Patients.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley &amp; Sons, Ltd, 11 Mar. 2020, <www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jmv.25728>.

9 “Prevention of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 Mar. 2020, <www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html>.

10 Stebbing, Justin. Published:February 27, 2020DOI:doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30132-8 PlumX Metrics, et al. “COVID-19: Combining Antiviral and Anti-Inflammatory Treatments.” The Lancet, 27 Feb. 2020, <www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30132-8/fulltext>.

When you start to educate yourself on a condition like Chiari, your vocabulary will be challenged. Most of us study with a medical journal article opened in one tab and medical dictionary in the next. Amongst all the medical terminology you will tackle, there are probably a few terms as important to your understanding of Chiari than comorbidities and pathological/etiological cofactors. When two or more conditions tend to co-occur, they are said to be comorbid with one another. It makes no inferences of a causal relationship between the conditions, only that they co-occur. This co-occurrence deduces that a correlation exists, but when the nature of that correlation is not known, they are just said to be comorbidities. When a “causal relationship” is known or suspected, the conditions start being discussed in terms of pathology or etiology, which are similar, but not exactly the same thing.

An etiological cofactor exists when the “root cause” of a condition is known or believed to be known. That “root cause” is the etiological cofactor. When an etiological cofactor can cause a series of events or conditions that can become “direct causes” for other conditions, that series of events creates a pathology. Conditions along the path are called pathological cofactors. Understanding these cofactors is imperative in understanding Chiari and all of the comorbid conditions that accompany it.

ETIOLOGICAL COFACTOR:

Chiari Malformation often seems like a beast that wreaks havoc on our bodies on every level. Indeed it is, but as you can see from the diagram above, it really is not the “root” of everything that is going wrong. There is a bigger beast at work in so many of us, and its name is Ehlers-Danlos. It is not by chance that so many of us with Chiari have so many other conditions in common (especially conditions like Degenerative Disc Disease, arthritis and other connective tissue problems). It is not by chance that so many of us have a history of miscarriage and similar familial histories. It is not by chance that Chiari is more prevalent in females than males. And it is definitely not by chance that Chiari is running in families and they cannot find a definitive genetic link. They cannot find it because they are not looking at the beast hiding in the background.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes are a group of inherited disorders involving a genetic mutation in one or more of our bodies’ collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein, making up 1/3 of the proteins in the human body, affecting our bones, skin, muscles, and connective tissue[1]. Collagen is often described as a “cellular glue” that helps hold the body together. When that glue fails to hold, everything seems to go awry; before and after birth: skulls can under-develop in utero, organs tend to prolapse, and bones begin to shift as joint laxity increases (including the bones/vertebrae at the craniocervical junction). Ehlers-Danlos is a primary “root cause” of Chiari Malformations and a majority of the other problems we have. The list in blue is far from being a complete list of conditions caused by EDS. They are commonly accompanied with Chiari because they can cause or attribute to a Chiari malformation (pathological cofactors).[2]

 

PATHOLOGICAL COFACTORS:

Cranial Settling occurs when the skull has dropped and the odontoid (C2/axis) enters into the foramen magnum (Basilar Invagination). This drop can further compromise the craniocervical junction and as it pushes everything down, it increases the likelihood of an Acquired Chiari Malformation.

Craniocervical Instability (CCI) & Atlantoaxial Instability (AAI) usually occurs with cranial settling and Basilar Invagination (BI). The settling and/or softening of tissue can cause a shifting of the C2 (resulting in CCI or AAI) and the cerebellar tonsils (which are already inclined to prolapse) simply drop down with each shift affecting ones ability to tilt/rotate their head.[3]

Intracranial Hypertension (IH – High Intracranial Pressure) occurs when your intracranial pressure (ICP) becomes elevated. This elevation can happen for a variety of reasons.

  1. Space Occupying Masses (cysts, tumors or hydrocephalus) take up space inside the skull causing a mass effect.”
  2. When no mass effect exists, many doctors look no further and give the diagnosis of Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension.

Because the area of the skull is fixed in an adult cranium and partially fixed in that of a child, the elements inside the fixed space (CSF, blood volume and brain matter) tend to get pushed out wherever they can (the only place that they can escape without breaking through the dura is through the foramen magnum and the brain matter that’s closest to the foramen magnum is the cerebellar tonsils).[4]

Tethered Cord Syndrome occurs when the tissue inside the epidermis adheres to the spinal cord or filum terminale. While this tethering can happen anywhere along the spinal canal, it is most common in the lower lumbar and/or sacral spine. When this adhesion happens it creates a pulling down of the spinal cord and consequently, the brainstem located at the top of the spinal cord and the cerebellar tonsils just get pulled down with it.[5]

Intracranial Hypotension (Low Intracranial Pressure, often involving a CSF Leak) usually involves a cerebrospinal fluid leak or an over-draining shunt, we will highlight the former. Ehlers-Danlos patients tend to have weak dura matter. Tears/holes in the dura can happen anywhere in the dura surrounding the brain or spinal canal and they can happen completely spontaneously (without a known cause). When the leak occurs in the spinal canal, they can create a suctioning effect where cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is being pulled down and out, causing the intracranial pressure (ICP) to drop. The cerebellar tonsils that are already prone to prolapse (due to EDS) end up getting suctioned downward with the CSF.[6] Cranial leaks often happen when high pressure is left untreated until the high pressure causes a leak in the dura mater. In cranial leaks, fluid usually leaks through the nose or ears (less common), and you can often taste the metallic taste of the cerebrospinal fluid in the back of your throat. While both spinal leaks and cranial leaks can cause low pressure and low-pressure symptoms, and while both can start, stop, and start again spontaneously, there is an increased risk whenever there is an opening where cerebrospinal fluid leaks outside of the human body (if cerebrospinal fluid can make it out of the body, microscopic bacteria can make it inside the same opening where it can enter in the meninges).[7]

Posterior Cranial Fossa Hypoplasia (PCFH) is the only etiological cofactor listed above that is definitely congenital. The role of collagen in bone development has been long-standing, especially its known contribution to certain conditions like Osteogenesis Imperfecta. However, more recent studies are discovering the role collagen plays in congenital posterior fossa anomalies. Posterior Cranial Fossa Hypoplasia is the most commonly “acclaimed” cause of Chiari malformations, but studies show, that even when all of the other causes above are factored out, only approximately 52% of those left (that fail to meet “the diagnosis criteria” for any of the above), have a small posterior fossa.[8]

 

COMORBIDITIES

While all of the conditions listed in the diagram are comorbidities, some are etiological/pathological cofactors of an Acquired Chiari (even though nearly 100% of us are told that our Chiari Malformation is congenital) and others have Chiari Malformation as their etiological/pathological cofactor:

Syringomyelia occurs when cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is obstructed and a CSF filled cyst/cavity forms inside the spinal cord. This cyst is directly related to the obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid that can be caused by Chiari Malformation, Spinal Stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal, spinal cyst/tumor, a herniated disc), or irregular curvature of the spine (scoliosis). When that cyst/cavity extends into the medulla oblongata (the lowest part of the brainstem), it is called Syringobulbia, and it comes with a new set of symptoms consistent with the damage being done to the brainstem. So when Chiari Malformation exists with a syrinx, and there is no stenosis or disc problem in close proximity below it, the Chiari Malformation should be listed as the etiological cofactor for the syrinx. If more than just the Chiari Malformation is believed to be causing the syrinx, each would be more accurately described as a pathological cofactor.

Dysautonomia occurs when damage has been done to the brainstem or Vagus nerve. Whenever either of these is damaged, often from compression at/near the craniocervical junction, the autonomic nervous system can begin to dysfunction.

 

Confused? If you understand the causal relationships but find yourself wondering if a comorbid condition is an etiological or a pathological cofactor, think of it in terms of a domino effect. Only the first domino is the real etiological cofactor. All of the dominoes in between (on the path) are pathological cofactors. The important thing to remember in this array of medical terminology is that while everything is definitely not Chiari, it almost always shares a connection to it, and that is why so many of us have so many conditions and symptoms that doctors call unrelated! It is imperative in our fight that we know “what” we have and “why” it is happening. With such a broad spectrum of symptoms (like we all have), we must educate ourselves and not just believe the limited knowledge of our doctors.

*Revised November 2019

 


 

References: 

McIntosh, James. “Collagen: What Is It and What Are Its Uses?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 16 June 2017, <www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262881.php>.

Quake. “The Chiari Malformation Ehlers-Danlos Connection (Short Version).” Chiari Bridges, 7 Dec. 2017, <www.chiaribridges.org/chiari-malformation-ehlers-danlos-connection-short-version>.

3 Hawkeye. “Overview: Craniocervical Instability and Related Disorders.” Chiari Bridges, 6 Dec. 2017, <www.chiaribridges.org/craniocervical-instability-related-disorders>.

4 Quake. “Brain Under Pressure – Understanding Intracranial Hypertension.” Chiari Bridges, 10 Dec. 2017, <www.chiaribridges.org/brain-pressure-understanding-intracranial-hypertension>.

5 Storm. “The Tethered Cord – Chiari Malformation Connection!” Chiari Bridges, 15 Dec. 2017, <www.chiaribridges.org/tethered-cord-chiari-malformation-connection>.

6 Argent. “Overview: Cerebrospinal Fluid Leaks.” Chiari Bridges, 10 Dec. 2017, <www.chiaribridges.org/cerebrospinal-fluid-leaks>.

7 Pérez, Mario A et al. “Primary Spontaneous Cerebrospinal Fluid Leaks and Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension” Journal of neuro-ophthalmology : the official journal of the North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society vol. 33,4 (2013): 330-7. doi:10.1097/WNO.0b013e318299c292, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4040082/>

8 Quake. “Overview: Chiari Malformation.” Chiari Bridges, 6 Dec. 2017, <www.chiaribridges.org/chiari-malformation>.

You Might Have More Than A Migraine If…

 

High-Pressure Headaches
Those that suffer from high pressure tend to feel pressure behind the eyes (often mistaken for sinus headaches) and report feeling like their “head is going to explode” from the pressure. High-pressure headaches are generally characterized by being worse when laying down – often awaking in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning with a headache, and the headache tends to dissipate to some degree after being upright for a period of time (and that period of time is different for everybody). Caffeine generally exacerbates high-pressure headaches.

  • For more on Intracranial HYPERtension: https://chiaribridges.org/brain-pressure-understanding-intracranial-hypertension/
  • For a list of common high-pressure symptoms:: https://chiaribridges.org//glossary/symptoms-of-intracranial-hypertension/

 

 

Low-Pressure Headaches
Those that suffer from low-pressure headaches tend to report feeling like there is an invisible pressure pushing down from the top of the head, often making it feel like your “head is going to implode.” Low-pressure headaches are characterized by being worse when upright and relieved by laying down. Low-pressure headaches are typically a sign of a cerebrospinal fluid leak (CSF Leak). The longer that the leak has existed, the less obvious the positional element is – meaning the patient can be upright longer before they feel the pressure at the top of their head, and they tend to need to lay down longer before getting any measure of relief. Caffeine often helps relieve low-pressure headaches.

  • For more on Intracranial HYPOtension & CSF Leaks: https://chiaribridges.org//cerebrospinal-fluid-leaks/
  • For a list of common low-pressure symptoms:: https://chiaribridges.org//glossary/symptoms-of-intracranial-hypotension/

 

 

Occipital Headaches
Chiari headaches are felt at the occiput – at the base of the back of the skull and upper neck. They are generally tussive in nature, where they are exacerbated by valsalva maneuvers, which generally include: coughing, sneezing, heaving, laughing hard, or bearing down (like with a bowel movement or childbirth). These maneuvers reduce cardiac output (the amount of blood coming from the heart with each heartbeat), which in turn affects the attempted flow of cerebrospinal fluid, and it increases vagal stimuli.

  • For more on Chiari Malformation: https://chiaribridges.org//chiari-malformation/
  • For an expansive review of the name and definition of Chiari Malformation: https://chiaribridges.org//whats-in-a-name-chiari-malformation/

 

Connecting the Three Headaches

  • Untreated high pressure can cause cranial leaks (which leads to low pressure) – often accompanied by cerebrospinal fluid leaking through the nose or ears.

 

  • CSF leaks can sometimes seal on their own leading to rebound high pressure (which is temporary) or continued high pressure if they originally had high pressure.

 

 

  • Untreated low pressure can cause the brain to sag and as it sags the cerebellar tonsils can get lodged into the foramen magnum where it blocks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, leading to occipital headaches (often diagnosed as a Chiari 1 Malformation).

 

  • Untreated spinal leaks can create a suctioning or pulling down effect where the cerebellar tonsils can get lodged into the foramen magnum where it blocks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, leading to occipital headaches (often diagnosed as a Chiari 1 Malformation).

 

 

 

Major Problem Regarding Our Diagnoses & Treatment Options:

  1. Doctors and radiologists alike, tend to see the herniated tonsils and assume a small posterior fossa.
  2. Most do not check for high pressure or low pressure, even when directly asked and symptoms are present.
  3. When a posterior fossa decompression is finally offered, the high or low pressure is often left untreated which leads to a failed decompression.
  4. By the time sufferers get a name to go with their symptoms, we jump at the opportunity for relief.

 

 

The “Bobblehead Sensation” – When It Feels Like Your Neck Can No Longer Hold Up Your Head

While most of us experience this feeling either intermittently or continuously, it is generally related to structural instability issues:

 

 

  • Cervical Instability (also known as Sub-axial Instability, SAI) involves hypermobility of the C2/C3 to the C7 intervertebral discs. This condition (like most conditions involving the cervical spine) is a major cause of muscle spasms (in the neck and throughout the body at any point below the disc issues. When these neck spasms occur, they can cause the “Bobblehead sensation” where it feels like your neck can no longer hold up your head. This disc degeneration can lead to paralysis as discs compress the spinal cord.

 

 

Important Questions to Ask Your Neurosurgeons: https://chiaribridges.org/important-questions-for-your-neurosurgery-appointment/

 

 

Colton had just finished his Chiari Decompression. He was headache free and doing great! His neurosurgeon came to me and said, “This is a genetic disorder and Emmalyn should be checked.” Two weeks later I took Emmalyn into the Chicago Area to be sedated for her first MRI of the brain and spine. Three hours later I met Emmalyn in recovery where she came out of anesthesia smiling. Emmalyn was three years old and asymptomatic, not even a headache. Colton’s neurosurgeon called me the next day and let me know that she was only 5mm herniated, but in the spinal MRI, she had two separate syrinxes. A smaller one in her cervical spine and a very large one in her thoracic spine. Her opinion was to decompress Emmalyn right away as she was very concerned about the two syringes and explained, “With the decompression, it should allow the syringes to dissipate.” So, we scheduled her first decompression for two-weeks later, on July 31st, 2012. Emmalyn went through her first decompression like a champ and was released from hospital after three days. This is when Emmalyn’s headaches started. It seemed like once a day she would be getting a headache. Two weeks into recovery Emmalyn was sitting in a chair and said that she felt sick to her stomach, so she ran into the bathroom, I followed and as she was heaving her head went deeper into the toilet. I picked her up and her eyes darted to the right and she couldn’t talk to me. I immediately called 911. When the paramedics arrived, they swept her from my arms and rushed her to the ambulance. They kept her in front of our house in the ambulance for about ten minutes before they came and told me she was having a seizure; they didn’t want to jostle her head, so they called the helicopter. We were told to meet the helicopter at the hospital, which is forty-five minutes away. My husband and I jumped in our van and I don’t think I have ever seen my husband drive so fast; we beat the helicopter there. When the helicopter landed, we were in the ER to greet her when she came off the elevator, and when she did, she was covered in blood and screaming. I looked to the helicopter nurse and she said, “Two minutes before landing she came to and she wanted her mom and pulled out her IV.” She had a forty-five-minute seizure. We are in “small-town,” USA, so the ER did a quick MRI, bloodwork, but no EEG and at the time I didn’t know she should have had one. So, they said she was fine and released her from the hospital. Of course, after speaking with her neurosurgeon the next day she had us in the car to make the five-hour drive for her to be admitted. After three days of tests, they concluded that she had chemical meningitis and put her on medication and anti-seizure meds for six months. Let me tell you that was the scariest time of my life, but Emmalyn took it like a champ. In three months, we had repeat scans, her decompression site looked good, but her syringes didn’t change in size, so we chose to wait and see.

In 2013, Emmalyn developed leg pain and started having incontinence. She potty trained early and never had problems. After going through more imaging and urodynamics they said that she didn’t look like she was tethered but they were sure that she was. They called it Occult Tethered Cord. So, Emmalyn underwent a tethered cord release on September 27, 2013. She only spent one night in the hospital and was up and doing all well, so they let her go home. After the release, her incontinence subsided but the leg pain continued.

Over the next two years, we monitored Emmalyn and her headaches continued. In 2014, we did our next repeat MRI and it showed that Emmalyn’s syrinx in her thoracic spine had gotten a little longer in length. It concerned her then neurosurgeon and she made the decision that we should do another decompression in hopes to reduce the size of Emmalyn’s syrinx. On July 1st, 2014 Emmalyn went for her second decompression. Once again, she came through everything like a champ. One thing about Emmalyn she is a fighter!

For the next year Emmalyn struggled with more headaches and leg pain, so more imaging was done. She had developed scar tissue that was blocking her CSF flow once again. After the imaging, the decision was made that in November, she would undergo yet another decompression to clean up the scar tissue so that flow could be reestablished. Emmalyn underwent her third decompression on November 2nd, 2015. She sailed through surgery and the surgeon came out to talk with my dad and me. She explained that Emmalyn’s future could be complicated as she was developing a lot of scar tissue and that would make things more complex because it could continue to block the flow. The pain after these surgeries is something, they don’t prepare you for and after this surgery, it was worse than the last two. She came out swinging and hated everything. They got her pain under control, but it seemed like more pain medication was needed this time to keep it that way. This time, she spent four days in the hospital before returning home.

After the surgery, her pain got a little better. Then on December 29th, our world got turned upside down. We were at my niece’s house in Wisconsin and my mom had run her hand down the back of Emmalyn’s head and she yelled for me to come over there. Emmalyn had a large lump on the back of her head that was squishy. We rushed to the ER in Madison and they took her straight to MRI and that is when we found out Emmalyn had developed her first pseudomeningocele. It was very large. They only let us leave with her when I promised to get an appointment with her neurosurgeon within the next week. On a good note, Emmalyn won her first American Girl Doll Grace while in the ER. She was so excited. It brought a smile to her face in between the bad headaches she was having. At this point in life, Emmalyn had lived with two years of headaches and had become known as the girl with a smile. She always smiled through her pain.

On January 5th, 2016 we took the five-hour drive back to her neurosurgeon. She took one look at the back of her head, and the imaging and she said we would be going back into surgery the next day to repair. Emmalyn was an add-on to their schedule, so she wouldn’t be going to surgery until noon. Keeping a five-year-old with no food or drink after midnight to noon is quite a task, but when the prior surgeries took longer than they thought, going until 5 pm was more than a task. She was mad, tired, hungry and beyond over it. They came to get her and even with all she had been through, she smiled and said, “love you all, see you when I wake up.” She was always so easy going into the operating room. After three hours, her neurosurgeon came out and said there was a pin-sized-hole in the dura. She showed me a picture, and she repaired it with a patch. Once again in true Emmalyn fashion, she woke up swinging, mad and in pain. By this point, they had her pain regimen down to a T, which is SO important. Her recovery went well, and she was out in three days and sent home.

Once again, her headaches and leg pain continued, but she was able to be upright again. In the middle of February, the back of her head became squishy again and her headaches started to get worse when upright. I called her neurosurgeon, and as always, more imaging was ordered, and as I suspected, her pseudomeningocele was back again. She delayed surgery as she wanted to do some research. So, Emmalyn laid down for most of a month. On March 31, we returned to the hospital for her sixth surgery. She went in and did the repair and placed an EVD drain, to check the pressure and drain CSF fluid. The drain was placed for a week, and it was the happiest and pain-free I had seen Emmalyn in over two years. Her pressures were all above 28, which meant high pressure. She made the decision that a VP shunt needed to be placed. Emmalyn went in for her seventh surgery on April 6th. Her Neurosurgeon came out and talked to me and my parents, she let me know that if this patch was to blow and another pseudomeningocele was to appear that at this point she wouldn’t know what to do next, that Emmalyn was too complex for her. I wanted to cry in fear for the first time. My dad said then what, whatever it was we would make it happen. Thank God for my dad, my rock. She said that she would refer us to a specialist she knew of in NYC. I prayed right there this night for god to take care of my little girl and heal her. After she woke up, the pain wasn’t as bad. Shunt placement seemed to be much easier than decompression. She stayed for two more days and was released to return home.

Emmalyn’s headaches continued, and one month later her pseudomeningocele reared its ugly head. I called her neurosurgeon and she did imaging and this leak was bigger than the other two. It consumed the whole back of her head. She made the referral to the specialist in New York City, NY.

After sending all her imaging, op notes, doctor’s notes and everything else. We consulted with the specialist’s office. An appointment was made to go to NYC and see him on June 10th, 2016. My sister, Emmalyn and I boarded the plane for our first trip ever to NYC. We met with the specialist, who went over all of Emmalyn’s imaging, talked with all of us and checked Emmalyn over. He let us know that Emmalyn was a very complex case, that her first neurosurgeon had removed too much bone and most likely cause her to have Craniocervical Instability (CCI). He also said that he suspected that she had a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), and that was why healing had been hard and why the dural patch was not holding. His surgical plan was to go in and once again patch the leak in the dura, clean up the scar tissue, place a titanium plate to hold where her brain was slumping, place an EVD drain again for a week to make sure the VP shunt was needed, and because of the EDS aspect to be closed by a plastic surgeon with muscle flaps to make sure it would hold. Before he would schedule surgery, he wanted to speak with her former neurosurgeon in depth to know what he was in for when he cut open the back of her head. He said that we could fly home and he would be in touch on when surgery would be scheduled.

Emmalyn struggled for a whole summer with severe headaches as we waited for surgery to be scheduled. Finally, at the beginning of September, we received the call that we would be returning to NYC on Sept 15, 2016, for pre-op and surgery on the 19th. Dreams come true and prayers answered. We would have to be in the city for two weeks, as she would be in the hospital for a little over one week. We returned to NYC and everything went as planned. She and I walked to the OR. She had a smile on her face, and she said, “I love you, mommy,” as she went under. As always Emmalyn woke up swinging and in so much pain. We were at a new hospital with nurses and staff that didn’t know her pain regimen, so momma bear kicked into action. At first, they wouldn’t listen when I told them that the only thing that worked for her for the first twenty-four hours after surgery was morphine and then she could be switched to Oxycodone. Once I was finally heard Emmalyn’s pain was taken care of. Within forty-eight hours Emmalyn was up and walking with her drain and feeling great. Her pressures were still above 28 the whole week so the decision was made to put the VP shunt back in place with the valve set at 1.5. She returned to the OR on September 26th for the shunt and was discharged from the hospital the next day. The next sixty-eight days were the best days of my daughter’s life; she was finally pain-free!

On the 4th of December 2016, Emmalyn’s leg pain returned, and two days later her headaches returned when upright. I emailed her new neurosurgeon immediately. He ordered stat MRIs of the brain and complete spine. I received a copy of the MRIs on disc and looked at them when I got home, and my worst fears came true – the pseudomeningocele had returned. I emailed her neurosurgeon a few images and he called me right away. He explained that he believed the leak was back and he wanted us on a plane ASAP. We flew back to NYC in two days and my parents followed three days later. When we arrived, he admitted her immediately through the ER. He explained surgery would take place on December 14, 2016, for another pseudomeningocele repair. On the 13th of December, he came into her room and switched gears, he believed that her shunt was malfunctioning and there was not a leak. I told him that her symptoms were the same as every leak before and he said he was very sure it wasn’t; so, on the 14th they would do the surgery to check her shunt. He took her into surgery on the 14th and come out and said that there was nothing wrong with the shunt, but he dialed it to 0.5 to help with the CSF and we could return home after post-op.

We returned home in time for Christmas and Emmalyn’s headaches continued to be horrible. I kept in constant contact with her new neurosurgeon about it and he kept saying let’s wait and see. We ended up having some insurance troubles as his office no longer excepted our insurance, so we had to take out an additional private policy for Emmalyn to be able to continue to see him. After all that was solved, we returned to NYC at the beginning of March for an ICP bolt test. Emmalyn returned to the OR on March 2nd, 2017 to have an ICP bolt placed to once again check her pressures as he believed her current VP shunt wasn’t aggressive enough. Her pressures were still a little high but not like before. She was in the hospital for forty-eight hours with the bolt and then it was removed at her bedside. She screamed through the removal. He sat down with us at post-op and talked to us in-depth that he still believed that there was not a leak and that he wanted to place a new VP shunt, with no valve, but instead she would have an anti-siphoning device behind her ear to slow it down when she was upright. He believed this was the best course of action for Emmalyn. He is the specialist, so of course, why would I question it. So, we scheduled her next surgery for March 22nd.

We returned to NYC at the end of the month and she went back into her first surgery of two on March 22, 2017. In the first surgery, he placed an EVD drain to drain CSF and to check pressures again. Her pressures were normal but on the higher size so he proceeded to surgery number two on March 29th. He removed the EVD drain and placed the new no valve shunt and the anti-siphoning device that could be changed when needed. It was a very painful surgery for Emmalyn as the placement of the anti-siphoning device was behind her ear in a very tender spot, and he also let me know she was the first child he had ever placed this in. She had recovered and returned home. Her headaches continued.

We had to come back in May for imaging as no one in our area would do MRI’s on her now due to liability issues with the shunt. The pseudomeningocele was still present and her headaches were still strong. He made the decision to give it until July and if things hadn’t improved, he would open the back of her head and check for the leak.

We returned in July and nothing had improved. We sat down to discuss the next surgery and he switched gears again. He said after a discussion with his colleagues, he still didn’t think there was a leak. He then let me know he thought adding a lumbar shunt would help the situation to take care of the pain and the pseudomeningocele. Once again over my better judgment, he is the specialist, so we scheduled surgery and her lumbar shunt was placed and set at 1.5. It was an easier surgery for her, so her hospital stay wasn’t as long. The next few days at the hotel were horrible her head pain was so she couldn’t even walk or be upright in bed without a debilitating headache. After speaking with her neurosurgeon, he said take her to the ER and have it dialed up to 2.0. Upon arrival at the ER, they checked her shunt and after her previous MRI, the resident dialed it to 0.5 rather than 1.5 (so it was virtually wide open). The current resident dialed it to 2.0 in front of me. Things improved. Recovery from this developed a whole new symptom – stomach pain. Now she had daily headaches, leg pain, and stomach pain, but through it all remained smiling as much as she could. He wanted her back in a month, for new imaging, to see how things were doing.

In a month nothing improved, she just continued to get worse. So, in August we returned for imaging and an appointment. The imaging showed that the pseudomeningocele had almost gone away. He was so happy. I was too, but her symptoms had not gone away at all and now the added stomach pain was causing even more suffering. So, he said we should return again the next month, and they would externalize the shunts to see if the stomach pain would go away and if it did, we would convert the VP to a VA to get the tubing out of her stomach.

We returned in September. He externalized her VP shunt but not the LP. Her stomach pain didn’t improve so he said it wasn’t the shunts, so he took her back into the OR to place her shunts back in place. Although I explained her headache pain was not better and I still believed she had a leak from her dura. He said he was positive there wasn’t a leak.

We returned to Illinois. Her symptoms continued to be debilitating. I emailed him at least five times a week for answers and he quit answering. So, I called his office and they would set up phone call appointments that he never kept. All attempts to contact him were ignored for three long months, while our eight-year-old Emmalyn suffered. Until the day I emailed his college about the problems she was having, asking, begging for anyone to give us a second opinion, and what do you know he called me ten minutes later. He promised he would come up with a plan, and said he thought she needed pain management as everything surgical was stable. After a week of hearing nothing, I emailed him one last time. Asking him to open the back of her head and check for a leak, if there wasn’t one, I would concede to pain management. His office called the next day to set up surgery.

We returned to NYC on December 10th for surgery on the 11th. He told me surgery should be less than two hours as he didn’t believe he would find anything. He came out to the waiting room five hours later. He took me outside the waiting room and explain to me that when he opened the back of her head, he found many holes in her dura that were causing a leak. He explained that he went further up on her head and harvested her own tissue and sealed the dura again. He told me that he believed this would secure the dura and we would never have a leak again. He said that the plastic surgeon was closing her up, and I should see her in about an hour. He assured us that he would be up the next day to talk further. What a punch in the gut. Emmalyn woke from surgery in so much pain, but the wonderful PICU team that knew her so well jumped into action. A lot of these nurses have at this point gone from just nurses to being like family to us. Our stay after this surgery was rough, she was hospitalized for ten days and couldn’t be upright longer than forty-five minutes without morphine. Her leaks were sealed, but with two shunts over-draining, her low-pressure pain was beyond belief. Only morphine by pump or IV were helping her pain, but they wanted her off of the morphine and on oxycodone before they’d release her. Her neurosurgeon was in everyday checking on her. Emmalyn’s only request was to be home for Christmas. We were eventually able to get her switched to Oxy and they said she could fly home on the 21st of December. He didn’t want to remove the shunts just yet as he wanted to keep all CSF off the back of her head so the patch would seal. We would return at the end of January to address the shunt issue.

Emmalyn came home for Christmas and spent it lying down, as the pain was at its worst when she was upright. She spent the next month that way until we returned at the end of January to return for surgery to have the lumbar shunt removed on January 31st, 2018. After it was removed her pain was still bad when upright, so her surgeon decided to go back into surgery to externalize her VP shunt and clamp it off to see if things improved, and they did somewhat. So, the decision was made to take her back into the OR again to remove her VP shunt. After three surgeries in ten days, Emmalyn came out with no shunts at all!

We returned home and as always headaches and leg pain had continued. We returned to NYC for post-op and imaging at the beginning of March. All imaging was done, and no leaks were found in the back of the head, but they noticed a “kink” in her brainstem and that her two syrinxes continued to be large. Her neurosurgeon believed everything was stable in her brain, even though the thoughts of CCI were still there. He began to focus on her spine. He sent her for a prone MRI (where she was laying on her stomach), and her surgeon said that she did not look tethered, and we were put back in the “wait and see” category.

Due to insurance reasons, we were unable to see our neurosurgeon for a while, so we were sent back to our original neurosurgeon. After consulting with her she sent us to a new neurosurgeon in her office that specialized in CCI. After doing a flexion MRI, CT and additional testing the decision was made that Emmalyn needed fusion. She went in on June 20, 2018, for fusion surgery from 0 to C4. Recovery was very rough and wearing the collar wasn’t much better. After her fusion surgery, her headaches seemed to get better, but her leg pain was at an all-time high.

Our insurance issues were resolved and our neurosurgeon that did her fusion thought it best that we return to our neurosurgeon in NYC because he knew her case best. So, we returned in September for more imaging and the next steps. In the process, Emmalyn’s scar on her side where her lumbar shunt was placed was very painful and very large. We consulted with our plastic surgeon and he decided that the scar needed to be revised along with the one on the back of her head, revision surgery was decided to be done on October 2. After our neurosurgeon in NYC reviewed her brain and spine imaging, her thoracic syrinx was still very large, he came up with the plan to go in and check for a tethered cord. He really believed she was not tethered, and he stated if she wasn’t then they would consider shunting her syrinx at a later date. On October 2nd Emmalyn was taken back into surgery for scar revision and exploration of tethered cord. After being in the OR for forty-five minutes our neurosurgeon came out into the waiting room to talk to me. After shaving the back of her head for the scar revision they saw that the screws from her fusion were ready to come through the back of her head. He said he brought his fusion surgeon in and he decided they would probably have to remove the top part of her fusion. I agreed to do what needed to be done to fix the situation. After four hours of surgery, he came out and explained that the side scar had been revised, and after exploring for a tethered cord, he considered her “a complex tethered cord,” and he untethered everything. He then explained that they were keeping her intubated overnight so they could do a CT to make sure she was fully fused before removing the top part of her fusion. Seeing her intubated was one of the hardest things in my life. She woke up once and was so scared and tried to talk. We explained what was happening and she went back to sleep. They did the CT overnight and made the decision she was fused and removed her top fusion the next morning. She came out with no collar and was told she did not have to wear one. We were sent home two weeks later.

The weekend after we returned home Emmalyn started complaining of a bad headache and stated that she heard a cracking noise in her head, and her head felt wobbly. I immediately emailed the two neurosurgeons. The plan was to get a CT on Monday. We found out the donor bone in her fusion had broken. The plan was to put her back in the cervical collar for it to heal. In just a few days of being in the cervical collar, the headaches were horrible, and her incision opened and looked infected. After talking with the neurosurgeons and talking with Emmalyn it was decided to return to NYC to have the top part of her fusion back in. On November 5th she went back in the OR once again to have the top part of the fusion put back in place. It was then that we learned just how extensive the infection had been, and our nightmare battling it began. After fusion surgery, she was placed back in the collar and the plastic surgeon that closed her stated that part of her incision had a blackness to it and needed to be revised and would have to be back in the OR in two weeks for revision. After the revision the infection returned. They put her on antibiotics and sent us home right before Christmas, after eight weeks in the city. Emmalyn’s headaches continued and did not get better, but the incision started to look better. Her round of antibiotics ended, and her incision opened again, so I sent pictures to her plastic surgeon and he wanted us back to NYC as soon as possible. We returned on January 2nd, 2019. We saw plastic surgery, infectious disease, and neurosurgery. Infectious disease was concerned that her hardware was infected, but neurosurgery said it wasn’t. After three weeks in the city, it was decided to take her into the OR and take the infected part off and see how deep it went. It was determined to be superficial, but they decided to keep her on the antibiotics. Her headaches continued to be bad, so the decision was made to keep her in NYC for the next month to monitor her. Her incision healed well on the antibiotics, so they discontinued the antibiotics. On February 27th she was taken into the OR for another ICP bolt, to check to see if high pressure returned. When upright her pressures were at 0 to -5 and laying down, they went as high as 8. Our neurosurgeon let us know that her pressures were normal, and a shunt would not help. After the surgery was done and we were discharged her incision opened, yet again. We went for her post-op visit with the neurosurgeon and he took one look and said her hardware had to be infected and needed to be removed. After speaking with her fusion surgeon, he stated there was no way we should be removing the hardware so soon, as she was not fused. So, they decided to take her in the OR and do a complete washout and cultures and put her on antibiotics indefinitely until the hardware could be removed. On March 11th she was taken into the OR once again and had a complete wash out with antibiotics. After the cultures returned with no answers, her infectious disease doctor put her on Cefadroxil 500mg twice daily until the hardware could be safely removed. After three months in the city, we finally returned home.

Emmalyn’s headaches continued as always. It had been her way of life for seven years. Now the new symptom of nausea started and never left. We returned in May to have her hardware removed. After it was removed her upright headaches came back strong, but her incision healed perfectly. We were there for another six weeks after surgery to be monitored and because of the low-pressure headaches that I knew all too well. I asked our neurosurgeon for a CT myelogram and he refused, saying he “still believed she had instability issues and there was definitely not a leak.” After going back and forth with him for a long time he refused to listen. I decided it was time for a second opinion.

I reached out to another specialist and he had many questions and agreed to see her. I let our neurosurgeon know that we were headed for a second opinion because all he was willing to do is have her see pain management. We left NYC and didn’t look back

She is with her new neurosurgeon now in California. He was very thorough in her appointment and understood how much she had been through and he wasn’t going to do any intervention unless it was needed. He did a flexion MRI that showed she was fused, and instability was not the problem. He put her on a medication to raise the pressures in her head, which helped some, but the headaches were still bad when upright or active. We returned home while he pulled a team together for further testing. We returned to California in September where we met with a pain team and physical therapy. It was decided she needed a CT Myelogram as they were convinced there was a leak somewhere. After the Myelogram, we met with her neurosurgeon and it was determined Emmalyn had a leak at L1 in her lumbar spine. He recommended an epidural blood patch to repair the leak. We received a call from the pain team that the leak specialist agreed, and her blood patch is set for October 9th.

We arrived back in sunny California on October 8, 2019, for her blood patch on October 9, 2019. On October 9th Emmalyn went into the OR for her blood patch. She had two blood patches placed, due to the presence of scar tissue at her L1 and L2 from her tethered cord surgery. They placed one there but also did a second patch coming up from her tailbone to make sure this it would seal. She struggled for a few days in the hospital with rebound high-pressure, so her neurosurgeon put her on Diamox for the time being, until we can figure out her new normal. We are in so much hope that the patches seal and I am now seeing a little girl with decreasing headaches.

Emmalyn’s story has been long and hard, and more than any little girl should have to endure. It’s impossible to go through thirty surgeries in the seven years of her ten-year life and have a short story to tell. She’s stronger than any child should have to be and despite all the pain, she tries to maintain a cheerful disposition that brightens everyone’s day. Emmalyn wanted to share her story in hopes that it might help other children in their fight. We hope that her story will help other families understand the importance in advocating for their child, even if it means getting second/third opinions! Don’t believe everything your doctors say, research it for yourselves and push to get the medical care that your child deserves. If a surgeon is willing to do surgery but is unwilling to run tests, walk away and get another opinion! Ask your child what they’re feeling and when they’re feeling it, as well as any changes that might be helping to relieve the pain (even if the relief is slight), because those are important details, and believe what they tell you even if you’re the only one that believes them. And beyond everything else, don’t give up and don’t give in! Fight it like you’re fighting for your child’s life because that is exactly what you’re doing – that is the fight!

Today is 11th April, 2019. Spring is in the air, yet I struggle to appreciate its presence. My daughters are at school, my son is at home in bed yet again. Like so many other days he is unable to get up. My son is 19 years old and looks just like any other 19 year old. You would never guess that this 19 year old is fighting a tremendously unfair battle every single day and has done so for several years.

Let me rewind.

My son was around 9 years old when he first complained of a lack of feeling on his right side and regular headaches. Doctors in Ireland, where we were living at the time, told him to drink more fluids after his daily soccer practice and put the numbness down to a trapped nerve. When he was 14 years old and living in Canada, he was told exactly the same by doctors there. However, when I finally insisted on him being referred to a neurologist, this very neurologist laughed at my son for wasting his time. He was told that it was all in his head. I vividly remember telling him off myself in the carpark on our way home.

I also remember being disappointed about his worsening school reports, blaming the onset of teenage years for his inability to concentrate and retain information. Blurred vision was also dismissed when his eye test came back just fine. Doctors didn’t grow concerned until he was 16 years old and living in France when a routine soccer medical check-up showed a sudden scoliosis deterioration from 8 degrees to 40 degrees. Subsequent MRIs showed Chiari Malformation (CM) with extensive Syringomyelia.

Neurosurgeons were quick to reassure him that all should be fine after a decompression surgery. Nevertheless, I spent hours researching these unknown rare conditions and found two experienced neurosurgeons, one in England and one in Belgium, for second opinions. Whereas surgeons in France took a more traditional approach and talked about inserting a shunt, both these surgeons warned strongly against this and so we made the decision to go to Belgium for the surgery. We felt well informed and were full of hope when my son embarked on his healing process 3 years ago.

Let me tell you where we are now.

Doctors in Europe tell us that my son is one of the unlucky few as his health has drastically deteriorated. Scar tissue has attached itself to his brain tonsils but that only explains part of his deteriorated health. So I embarked on a mission to get to the bottom of these problems. Surely there was hope to be found in the health system in France, one of the best in the world! After countless appointments with multiple health professionals, we were dumbfounded by the complete lack of understanding, knowledge and pure arrogance in relation to CM and its associated conditions, which resulted in my son’s mental health being questioned yet again.

I started carrying out my own research, which clarified the distinct link between brain disorders and compromised immune/digestive systems. Whereas his doctors are reluctant to make that link, the evidence is clear. 18 months after surgery, my son got struck down by glandular fever. Again, we were hopeful that this would only be a temporary setback. Today however, my son suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome as well as dysautonomia.

At our wits end last summer, we turned to a hospital in the United States that specialized in Chiari Malformation. Our first consultation with its Managing Director turned out to be an eye opener. This neurosurgeon could literally finish our sentences. My son was finally understood. It turns out that doctors in Europe had failed to diagnose another condition, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which caused craniocervical instability. This in itself can be a debilitating condition but the combination of craniocervical instability with brain decompression surgery can be a death sentence. He further explained that such patients are deemed to benefit from Occipitocervical Fixation (OC) Fusion surgery. However, this surgery has not yet received the green light for these conditions from Health Services in Europe.

Armed with a diagnosis of Complex Chiari, we faithfully returned to my son’s French doctors, only to be met, yet again, by a lack of understanding. My request for an upright flexion/extension MRI was seen as outlandish and peculiar. Turns out, an upright MRI is not yet available in France. Instead they still rely on flexion/extension X-ray images which fail to adequately detect craniocervical instability.

In recent discussions, our son’s Belgian neurosurgeon cautiously recognizes the link between CM and EDS. However, as these studies are in their infancy in Europe, doctors still carry out decompression surgeries without checking for EDS. He also questions the durability of an OC Fusion but agrees that much more extensive research needs to be carried out in Europe and that my son is extremely unfortunate this hasn’t happened yet.

So where does this leave my son? In the land of limbo. Knowing that Europe is trailing some 10 years behind the States in this field. France, with its inherent reluctance to change, probably closer to 15 years. School is no longer an option for my son as his brain fog and memory loss have become more and more of a problem, his fatigue too debilitating and his headaches too frequent.

We are tired of fighting the system, tired from having to spell out the name of his conditions to health professionals, tired of being misunderstood. There are days I avoid going out as I don’t want to answer people’s well-meant questions. There are days I am ashamed of the anger that wells up inside me when friends air their worries about their children’s school results. There are days I feel like I am being punched in the stomach when I see his friends play a soccer match. People tell me I am strong. I don’t agree. I wish I had been strong all those years ago and believed my son over his doctors.

My son is my hero. My son is a fighter. My son has generally done what health professionals told him to do, taken every medication health professionals told him to take, followed the advice health professionals told him to take, yet the system continues to let him down. When I look into my son’s eyes, I still see this steadfast determination but I now also see pain and disillusionment. My son believed me when I told him we would overcome this together. My son believed me when I told him the worst would be over soon. My son doesn’t believe me anymore. I feel that I have failed him.

Complex Chiari diagnosed so late is a life sentence. It has brought pain, sadness and isolation, not only to my son but to my entire family. My husband and I are learning to compartmentalize, enjoy moments. We live in hope that our son’s better periods will begin to lengthen and pick ourselves up every time these come to an abrupt end. We have to. We owe it, not only to our son but to our daughters too.

We continue our journey through the unknown, thankful for the sources of information coming from the United States, usually met with skepticism and resistance by French health professionals. However, one thing I have learned from our journey so far is that we cannot fight these conditions and health services alone. Surely there must be more people out there in Europe. Surely, as a group we can start making a difference. Let’s unite! Let’s educate! Let’s raise awareness! Our children deserve so much better! Our children deserve to be heard, supported, and at the very least, understood!

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Most Chiarians go to see a surgeon with an expectation of them being knowledgeable in their field. However, while they might be a surgeon with a specialty of neurologically-based surgical procedures, their knowledge of Chiari and its comorbid conditions might not rank high in their practice. Make the most of your initial appointment by interviewing them and what they really know about Chiari Malformation. Be cautious of inflated success rates, as the scale on their decompression success/failure rates are not based on how their patients feel afterward, it is based on if they were successful with the aspects of the surgery (bone removal, opening the dura, adding the dural patch/graft, laminectomy). 

 

HERE IS A LIST OF CHIARI QUESTIONS WE RECOMMEND ASKING AT YOUR FIRST NEUROSURGERY APPOINTMENT:

 

General Questions:

  • In an average month, how many Chiari decompressions do you perform?
  • What do you believe causes a Chiari malformation?
  • Looking at my brain scan, is any part of my “brainstem” herniated (below the posterior fossa)?

 

Intracranial Hypotension (low pressure) Questions:
*Article to help you understand CSF Leaks & Intracranial Hypotension prior to your appointment.
If you have SYMPTOMS OF LOW INTRACRANIAL PRESSURE and/or suspect a cerebrospinal fluid leak, we recommend asking the following questions:

  • S.E.E.P.S.
    • Looking at my brain scan, do you see any Subdural fluid collections?
    • Looking at my brain scan, do you see an Enhancement of pachymeninges?
    • Looking at my brain scan, do you see an Engorgement of my venous structures? Should we do an MRV to make sure?
    • Looking at my brain scan, does my Pituitary appear to be enlarged?
    • Looking at my brain scan, does my brain appear to be Sagging?

If he/she answers affirmatively to any of the above S.E.E.P.S. questions, ask: 

  • What should be done to find/repair a potential leak?
  • Are you aware that it is common for CSF Leaks to not show up on MRI?
  • Are you willing to do a CT Myelogram and a  digital subtraction myelogram if I develop symptoms of a leak and none can be found on MRI?
  • Are you aware that it can often take multiple epidural blood patches to try and seal a leak, and sometimes when a blood patch fails to work, a surgical dural repair might be necessary?

 

Intracranial Hypertension (high pressure) Questions:
*Article to help you understand Intracranial Hypertension prior to your appointment.
If you have SYMPTOMS OF HIGH INTRACRANIAL PRESSURE, we recommend asking the following questions:

  • Looking at my brain scan, do I have cerebrospinal fluid in my sella turcica (Empty Sella Syndrome)?
  • Looking at my brain scan, do you see any evidence of my optic nerves are swollen (papilledema)?
    • If so, should I be referred to a neuro-ophthalmologist?
  • Looking at my brain scan, do my lateral ventricles appear small or flattened?
    • If so, do I need to have my pressures checked?
    • What are the symptoms of a CSF Leak, should one develop?
      • What is your plan of action if I should develop these leak symptoms?
      • Are you aware that it is common for CSF Leaks to not show up on MRI?
      • Are you willing to do a CT Myelogram if I develop symptoms of a leak, and none can be found on MRI?
    • Should a leak be found, are you aware that it can often take multiple epidural blood patches to try and seal a leak?

 

Tethered Cord Questions: 
*Article to help you understand Tethered Cord: Sorry, Coming Soon.
If you have SYMPTOMS OF TETHERED CORD, we recommend asking the following questions:

  • Looking at my brain/cervical scan, does my brainstem appear to be elongated?
  • Looking at my cervical scan, does my spinal cord appear to be stretched?
  • Looking at my lumbar scan, does my conus reach my L2/L3?
  • Looking at my thoracic and lumbar scan, does my spinal cord appear to be pulling to the back, or one particular side?
    • If so, should we do a prone MRI to see if it has actually adhered to that side?
  • Looking at my lumbar scan, do I appear to have fatty tissue inside the epidermis?
    • If the answer to any of these questions is affirmative, do you suspect that I have a tethered spinal cord?
    • If so, should we plan for a Tethered Cord Release before or soon after decompression surgery, so the likelihood of a failed decompression is reduced?
    • If I have urological issues, can I get a referral for urodynamic testing to rule out any other potential causes of my urological issues?

 

Craniocervical Instability (CCI) & Atlantoaxial Instability (AAI):
*Article to help you understand CCI & AAI prior to your appointment.
If you have SYMPTOMS OF CRANIOCERVICAL INSTABILITY or SYMPTOMS OF ATLANTOAXIAL INSTABILITY, we recommend asking the following questions:

  • Looking at my brain/cervical scans, what are the measurements of my clivoaxial angle and Grabb-Oakes?
  • Do these measurements meet the diagnostic criteria for Craniocervical Instability?
  • Looking at my flexion and extension imaging, how many millimeters of translation are there between flexion and extension?
  • Does Chamberlain’s Line cross my odontoid? If so, does it cross at a level that would indicate Basilar Invagination?
  • Looking at my rotational imaging, what is the percentage of uncovering of the right and left articular facets on rotation?
  • Do the percentages from my rotational imaging meet the diagnosis criteria for Atlantoaxial Instability?

 

IF A DIAGNOSIS CRITERIA IS MET IN ANY OF THE ABOVE, WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU WAIT ON DECOMPRESSION AND PURSUE THE TREATMENT OF SAID CONDITION(S) AND THAT OF EHLERS-DANLOS SYNDROME, AS EACH OF THESE CONDITIONS CAN BE PATHOLOGICAL TO AN ACQUIRED CHIARI AND EACH IS A STRONG INDICATOR THAT A CONNECTIVE TISSUE PROBLEM EXISTS. 

*The questions in this article will periodically change, as we are able to expand our recommended question suggestions.

 


*Original version released September 2018, revised November 2019.

 

 

THE DEFINITION OF A CHIARI MALFORMATION HAS BEEN LONG DEBATED. IT REALLY IS NO WONDER THAT PATIENTS AND MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS ALIKE ARE CONFUSED. THEN, WITH US FULLY UNDERSTANDING ALL SIDES OF THE DEBATE, WE DEFINED A CHIARI MALFORMATION AS STRUCTURAL DEFECTS IN WHICH THE CEREBELLUM, THE HIND PART OF THE BRAIN, DESCENDS BELOW THE FORAMEN MAGNUM INTO THE SPINAL CANAL. THIS DEBATE IS BEING ANALYZED THIS YEAR, AS CERTAIN ORGANIZATIONS ARE BRAVING TO ATTEMPT TO BRING DOCTORS ALL UNDER ONE UNIFORM DEFINITION AND DIAGNOSTIC CRITERIA. THEREFORE, AMIDST ALL THE CONFUSION AND DEBATE, WE WANTED TO EXPLAIN THE FACTORS INVOLVED, AND WHY WE WENT WITH THE DEFINITION THAT WE DID, AND WHY ONE STANDARD IS SO IMPORTANT!

To better facilitate our explanation, we will call all associated terms by their specific medical names:

Tonsillar Ectopia (TE) = tonsillar herniation of any size
Posterior Fossa Hypoplasia (PFH) = an underdeveloped posterior fossa

 

Chiari Malformation Vs. Arnold Chiari Malformation

The most common type of Chiari is Type 1 (which includes a Chiari 1.5, where the brainstem is also below the foramen magnum). Many people use the term “Chiari Malformation” when diagnosed with Type 1, while others cling to the name “Arnold Chiari Malformation” with the same diagnosis. Is there a difference? The name “Chiari Malformation” came from Hans Chiari, an Austrian pathologist, who first discovered the malformation in the late 19th century.[1, 2] Julius Arnold, a German pathologist, later expanded on Chiari Type 2, and Type 2 took on his name “Arnold Chiari Malformation.” Therefore, technically speaking, a Chiari Malformation and an Arnold Chiari Malformation are not the same; Arnold Chiari Malformation is specific to Chiari Type 2 (which usually includes a myelomeningocele, the most serious form of Spina Bifida). However, they are used interchangeably by many, even by medical professionals and the misnomer is of little consequence one way or the other.[3]

 

Chiari Malformation = Posterior Fossa Hypoplasia Theory

Many ascribe to the theory that a Chiari Malformation ONLY consists of a posterior fossa hypoplasia (which means that the back of the skull is malformed, and therefore the cranial area (space) at the rear is too small). They believe that a tonsillar ectopia is only a symptom, and a Chiari Malformation can exist with or without an accompanying ectopia. This argument is not without merit, because much of what was initially being looked at by Hans Chiari were deformities in the posterior skull upon postmortem examination (so there wasn’t soft tissue to analyze). He originally attributed much to hydrocephalus, but expanded his research into the pons, medulla oblongata, and cerebellum (which can all be attributed to intracranial pressure as a pathology of a “tonsillar ectopia”). To ascribe to this belief would also mean that “Acquired Chiari Malformations” cannot exist, as one doesn’t “acquire” a small posterior fossa. And that would also mean that Chiari Type 2, Type 3 and Type 4 technically would not be a Chiari Malformation at all either, since their definitions do not require a posterior fossa hypoplasia. Perhaps type 3, which has an opening at the back of the skull, but no “small posterior fossa” is even implied in the definitions.

But to look at the full history of what became known as a Chiari Malformation, we can begin by looking at the research of a German pathologist, named Theodor Langhans. In his research in 1881 (a decade before Hans Chiari conducted his research on what became known as a Chiari Malformation), while looking at syringomyelia (“a cavity created in the spinal cord”), he noted a “change in the cerebellar cavity.” Upon dissection of the cerebellum, he described the cerebellar tonsils as “two symmetrical pyramidal tumors,” pushing the brainstem forward.[4] In fact, the other noted researchers: Nicholas Tulp (1593–1674), John Cleland(1835–1925), and Julius Arnold (1835–1915), all centered on the hindbrain hernia [herniation] without speculation as to its etiology/pathology. It is said that “many of the English translations of Chiari’s work contain inaccuracies.” But note that Chiari’s first paper was on “ectopia of cerebellar tissue,” and that he went on to define Type 1 as showing, “elongation of the tonsils and medial parts of the inferior lobes of the cerebellum into cone shaped projections, which accompany the medulla oblongata into the spinal canal.”[5] Which sounds like what is now known to be a Chiari 1.5. Much later, in 1938, at a time when the posterior fossa decompression became the popular surgical treatment for a Chiari Malformation, a Chiari 2 patient “underwent posterior fossa exploration with the authors not considering hindbrain herniation in their differential. Penfield and Coburn later stated that: ‘In retrospect it seems that we should have suspected the Arnold-Chiari malformation. Instead, a suboccipital craniotomy was carried out…” So even the early neurosurgeons seeking to perfect their surgical treatment felt that it was a mistake to concentrate on the posterior fossa and not take into account etiologies of the hindbrain herniation. That mistake is still going on 80 years later.[6]

The biggest problem that they are going to have with strictly defining a Chiari Malformation as a small posterior fossa resides in the fact that the diagnosis criteria for a Chiari Malformation only consists of ONE MEASUREMENT, the length of the tonsillar ectopia (how far the tonsils herniate below the foramen magnum). Generally, there are no measurements of the posterior fossa taken when radiologists make the initial diagnoses. Furthermore, most neurosurgeons see the radiology reports, and depending on symptomology, they make the decision to decompress or not to decompress without ever measuring the size of the posterior fossa. Most never look for (and often do not know about) etiological/pathological cofactors that could have been causing the tonsillar prolapse in the first place.

Where does this assumption leave us?
Unfortunately it leaves most of us with failed decompressions, fighting with our neurosurgeons that “something is still wrong.” These neurosurgeons look at their post-operative checklist and see that they successfully did everything surgically required in their out-of-date textbooks:
  1. Suboccipital bone was appropriately decompressed. ✔️
  2. Dura was opened and dura patch was successfully inserted. ✔️
  3. Lamina was successfully removed from the C1 (and sometimes the C2 as well). ✔️
They did all that was required of them based on the diagnoses presented! They don’t have time (or don’t care) to look beyond that, so once again, the idea of our continued symptoms are thought of as being psychosomatic.
 
While we applaud the efforts of those seeking to get a measure of consistency in how Chiari is defined, the truth remains that until the diagnosis criteria is changed as well, we are being diagnosed with Chiari Malformation based on our tonsillar herniation; it is presumed to be congenital; we are being surgically treated as though it is congenital, and we are ending up with failed decompressions. This confusion is beyond unacceptable, it’s reprehensible!
When it is all redefined, hopefully we will have a well defined diagnosis criteria, or it is all irrelevant. And the many that really did acquire what was assumed to be “congenital” who are now being told that they do not have Chiari Malformation at all, will be able to get lawyers for “an improper diagnosis” that lead to the incorrect brain surgery being done. There are surgeons coming around and finally seeing that there is merit to these studies that have been done since the late 1990s, that have shown a pushing/pulling effect that can cause the tonsillar ectopia that gets us diagnosed with a Chiari Malformation, and we applaud them for having the integrity to stand up and get it right. That’s exactly what we need and deserve!
If you were diagnosed with a Chiari Malformation and want to know how all of this might be affecting you, we encourage you first to find your initial radiology reports, and see if there were measurements taken of the posterior fossa. And then wait with that information… wait and see what changes are actually made to the definition. While you are waiting learn. Learn everything you can about every etiological/pathological cofactor, and every comorbidity. If it is “officially” redefined as a small posterior fossa, we will have to work together as a community (like we always do) to help lawyers see how we have been getting lost in the shuffle, year after year. If it’s not officially changed and Chiari continues to be defined as a structural defect involving the cerebellar tonsils, we will have to continue in our fight to make these cofactors of Acquired Chiari Malformation known!

 


 

References:

1 Tubbs, et al. “Hans Chiari (1851–1916).” Journal of Neurology, Pioneers in Neurology, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 26 Mar. 2010, <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00415-010-5529-0>.

2 “Hans Chiari.” Whonamedit – Dictionary of Medical Eponyms, <www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/1123.html>.

3 Tubbs, R. Shane, and W. Jerry Oakes. The Chiari Malformations: A Historical Context . 2013, <https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/79dd/127d31820d612600c0b032225437295d86c3.pdf>.

4 Mortazavi, M M, et al. “The First Description of Chiari I Malformation with Intuitive Correlation between Tonsillar Ectopia and Syringomyelia.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2011, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21361763>.

Pearce, J M S. “Arnold Chiari, or ‘Cruveilhier Cleland Chiari’ Malformation.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 1 Jan. 2000, <https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/68/1/13>.

Mortazavi, Martin M., et al. “The First Posterior Fossa Decompression for Chiari Malformation: the Contributions of Cornelis Joachimus Van Houweninge Graftdijk and a Review of the Infancy of ‘Chiari Decompression.’” SpringerLink, Springer, Dordrecht, 6 Apr. 2011, <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00381-011-1421-1>.

Craniocervical Instability and related pathologies of the craniocervical junction are an important topic for anyone diagnosed with Chiari 1 malformation. “Complex Chiari,” or the presence of craniovertebral abnormalities or instability in addition to the presence of cerebellar tonsillar herniation, is present in approximately one fourth of all cases of Chiari 1 malformation[1]. These cases usually involve the presence of a genetic connective tissue disorder and are thought by experts to be the cause of most Chiari decompression failures[2]. When the doctor and patient alike are not knowledgeable about these conditions and the additional symptoms that often accompany them, these more complex cases are often treated with a standard decompression, which can actually weaken the stability of the craniocervical junction more, and result in an increase of symptoms rather than a clinical improvement. Understanding what signs and symptoms to look for that may indicate that your Chiari is more complex, is vital in receiving the appropriate treatment the first time. This is especially important considering that, according to Chiari expert Paolo Bolognese, M.D., “[with revision surgeries], the results are not as good as if you had done the posterior decompression well the first time.”[3]

Punjabi and White define instability as the “loss of the ability of the spine under physiological loads to maintain relationships between vertebrae in such a way that there is no damage or subsequent irritation of the spinal cord, (brainstem) or nerve roots, and in addition that there is development of deformity or incapacitating pain due to structural changes.”[4] This means that the ligaments and muscles that normally hold the spine together, are too weak or damaged to handle the normal range of motion and weight of anatomic structures. For example, in Craniocervical Instability, the neck is not strong enough to support the normal weight of the head, without elements of the spine moving in such a way that it causes pain or damage to the nervous system (spinal cord, brainstem, and even cranial nerves). The result is that the bones that make up the lower skull and upper spine get pushed out of their normal anatomic location and begin to impinge on or cause stretching of these parts of the nervous system.

Craniocervical Instability can result from or be exacerbated by a trauma, such as a severe whiplash injury. However, many cases of CCI are associated with some sort of connective tissue disorder, such as a heritable disorder of connective tissue (HDCT, like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or Marfan’s), or an autoimmune condition that affects the connective tissue (such as Rheumatoid Arthritis), or a few other rarer conditions that affect the integrity of bony structures in the skull and spine. Instability can result either from lax ligaments and other connective tissues, soft bones (also seen in HDCTs) or from something like pannus formation, where repeated rubbing together of the joints causes a build-up of granulated tissue around bony structures and changes the way certain bones lie in relationship to one another[5]. Craniocervical Instability can also result as a complication of Chiari decompression surgery, when too much bone is removed from the skull, resulting in the instability of the skull on the top of the spine[6].

In the patient community, the term “CCI” is often used in reference to both Craniocervical Instability and Atlantoaxial Instability (AAI). CCI is often used to refer to the commonly seen combination of issues with the craniocervical junction, that include the instability of the joints where the skull meets the C1 vertebrae (which is true CCI), the instability of the joints between C1 and C2 (true AAI), a retroflexed odontoid, pannus formation, and a kyphotic clivo-axial angle (which are all forms of basilar impression/invagination). But CCI really should refer to the movement of the skull with respect to the spine. This sliding is referred to as “translation” and is measured on dynamic imaging in millimeters. The pathological threshold for the degree of translation of the basion with respect to the odontoid process between flexion and extension is 2mm, and any amount of translation greater than 1mm is capable of producing symptoms7. Likewise, at the C1-C2 joint, instability in the form of AAI can cause an excessive uncovering of the joint facets. Facets are the surfaces of the vertebrae that articulate with next vertebra. An uncovering of the facets that exceeds 20% is considered pathological.

The occipito-atlantic joint allows for about half of the cervical spine’s ability to flex and extend (tilt forward and backward). Likewise, the atlantoaxial joint [the articulation between C1 (atlas) and C2 (axis)] accounts for about half of the cervical spine’s ability to rotate the head. Because of this, these vertebrae lack the same amount of stability as the remainder of the spine, and ligaments are largely responsible for their stability[8]. Therefore, ligamentous laxity, as seen in connective tissue disorders, make these areas of the spine particularly prone to pathologic instability. Symptoms of AAI may include visual changes, syncope (fainting) or near-syncopal episodes, dizziness, nausea, facial pain, difficulty swallowing, choking, respiratory issues, and upper cervical tenderness. These symptoms will usually improve with the use of a neck brace[9]. For patients with connective tissue disorders, as are seen in 12-20% of patients diagnosed with Chiari, dynamic imaging is very important in identifying potential instability. The ideal tests to diagnose CCI and AAI are an upright MRI with flexion and extension and a 3D CT with rotational views, respectively[10]. It is important to note that ventral brainstem compression may not be seen on traditional supine MR imaging, while it may be very evident on dynamic imaging.

Basilar Invagination and Basilar Impression are also often seen with instability. They are almost identical to one another, and refer to upward displacement of the bones of the spine. However, technically, Basilar Invagination is caused by this deformation with normal bone, while Basilar Impression results from softening of bone[11]. For our purposes, this distinction is less important, but we will discuss any displacement in terms of “Basilar Invagination,” or “BI” for short. Forms of Basilar Invagination now include the prolapse of the odontoid process through the foramen magnum (the original condition described by the term), cranial settling, a kyphotic clivo-axial angle, and a retroflexed odontoid[12]. The kyphotic clivo-axial angle is an important and relatively easy measurement to indicate potential deformative stress on the brainstem. The clivus is a wedge-shaped bone that normally lies above and ventral to the top of spine. When it lies more horizontally, it creates a sharp angle that results in a bending of the brainstem. The odontoid peg (also called the odontoid process or the dens) is the part of the C2 vertebrae, or Axis, that the skull pivots upon, so named because of its tooth-like shape. A retroflexed odontoid occurs when the odontoid is bent backwards, often compressing the front of the brainstem. Other important measurements involving ventral brainstem compression for a kyphotic clivo-axial angle and/or retroflexed odontoid include the Grabb-Oakes and Harris measurements.

  • The clivo-axial angle is measured by drawing a line along the posterior (back, or when lying more horizontal, the top) side of the lower clivus and intersecting that line with a line drawn on the posterior side of the axis.  If the angle created is less than 135°, it is considered pathological.  Like instability, a kyphotic clivo-axial angle is often seen in patients with connective tissue disorders and degenerative rheumatoid disease[13]See figure 1 below.

  • For the Grabb-Oakes measurement, a line is drawn from the basion (the midpoint of the anterior margin of the foramen magnum) to the inferior posterior C2. A perpendicular line is then drawn from the center of this line to the dura of the brainstem. A Grabb-Oakes measurement greater than 9 mm denotes a form of basilar invagination. This is a very helpful measurement for determining how much a retroflexed odontoid is compressing the brainstem. See Figure 2 above.
  • The Harris measurement is the distance between the basion and the Posterior Axial Line. This distance should not be more than 12 mm. A measurement of more than 12 mm also denotes instability. This measurement can also be used to measure the translation between flexion and extension in dynamic imaging[14]. See Figure 3.

Symptoms of ventral brainstem compression can occur with various types of BI and instability. They may be referred to together as a “cervicomedullary syndrome” and may include[15]:

  • A heavy headache (often referred to as feeling like a “bobblehead” or feeling like the head is a “bowling ball”)
  • A Chiari-type pressure headache aggravated by Valsalva maneuvers (because these conditions, like Chiari, can also cause flow issues)
  • Dysautonomia (including tachycardia, heat intolerance, orthostatic intolerance, syncope (fainting), polydipsia (extreme thirst), delayed gastric emptying, chronic fatigue)
  • Neck pain (often severe)
  • Central or mixed sleep apnea
  • Facial pain or numbness – Occasionally, including Trigeminal Neuralgia
  • Balance and coordination impairment
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Vision problems, including double vision and downward nystagmus
  • Reduced gag reflex and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hearing loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Paralysis
  • In more severe cases, non-epiform seizures have also been documented

In addition to producing significant pain and neurological symptoms, the compression and kinking of the brainstem can cause significant injury to the brainstem neurons by stretching the axons of the nerves to the point that they break and recoil, producing what are called “axon retraction bulbs” that can be seen on microscopic examination of the cells. The stress placed on the brainstem by both compressing and stretching simultaneously is much greater than the mere sum of these two mechanisms. Interestingly, during the flexion of the normal spine, it stretches 17% of its length. Research has shown that the axon of a giant squid fails when stretched to 20% if its length. Therefore, the normal motion of the human neck brings us very close to injuring our brainstem. Consequently, it only takes a slight alteration of our normal anatomy to cause injury to these delicate nervous tissues[16].

Treatment of Craniocervical Instability typically begins with more conservative medical management, such as neck bracing, activity limitation, physical therapy (including isometrics, sagittal balance, core strengthening and cardio), and pain management. Other causes of symptoms such as co-morbid conditions, multiple sclerosis, dystrophy, mitochondrial disorders, vitamin deficiencies and Lyme disease should be ruled out or treated. However, surgical intervention via a craniocervical fusion is indicated when the following criteria are met:

Severe headache or neck pain >7/10
AND cervicomedullary syndrome
AND neurological deficits referable to the craniocervical junction
AND radiological findings indicative of instability

Surgeons and patients alike should consider surgery after medical management has been maximized and the patient has shown a positive response to neck bracing[10].

Various specific surgical techniques are applied in craniocervical fusions. A more common technique is the open reduction and fusion stabilization procedure. This procedure involves stabilizing the head with screws, making an incision that exposes the occiput through C2, and fixing plates to the occiput which attach to the C1 and C2 (and sometimes C3) vertebrae with rods. A newer technique adapted by Dr. Paolo Bolognese is using a less invasive Chiari decompression surgery known as MIST (minimally invasive subpial tonsillectomy) along with a fusion using screws placed in the occipital condyles. Although the dura is opened to partially resect the tonsils, a duraplasty is not done. Advantages of this procedure include a smaller incision, smaller hardware, less bone removal, and a thicker bone for which to insert screws in the occiput. Risks of both methods include vertebral artery injury, and a slightly increased risk for segmental instability below the fusion, along with the standard risks of any surgical procedure, such as bleeding, infection, and complications from anesthesia. Both procedures demand the hands of a very skilled and experienced surgeon, because vital structures lie in and around the area. Using condylar screws may increase the risk of injury to major vessels, particularly in the hands of a less experienced surgeon. An important cranial nerve also lies just deep to the occipital condyles, making precise screw placement extremely important. This may limit the procedure in becoming more widely used, but the resulting fusion may be stronger, despite the reduced amount of hardware[17].

In the presence of a retroflexed odontoid, an open reduction, fusion and stabilization procedure may be enough to relieve ventral brainstem compression. However, in more severe cases, a further surgery called an odontoidectomy may be needed to remove the odontoid process. This surgery may be done through the mouth or the nose[18].

Every Chiari patient should be aware of hereditary connective tissue disorders and the signs and symptoms of Craniocervical Instability and Basilar Invagination. Many neurosurgeons do not evaluate their patients for these conditions prior to performing Chiari decompression surgery, often resulting in the need for revision surgeries and poor results. Being an educated patient can help you ask the right questions and insist on the proper evaluation and testing to avoid the pitfalls that many other patients have faced.

 


 

References:

1 Bolognese, Paolo A, director. Surgical Techniques for Chiari MalformationsYouTube, American Syringomyelia Chiari Alliance Project, 16 Mar. 2015, <www.youtu.be/KfYmJnB6sPQ>.

2 Bolognese, Paolo A. “Modern Classification and Subclassification of Chiari Malformations.”YouTube, American Syringomyelia Chiari Alliance Project, 16 Mar. 2015, <www.youtu.be/ZQ9ZmquN-M0>.

3 Bolognese, Paolo A. “2016 ASAP CM/SM Conference – ‘Complex Posterior Fossa’ – Bolognese.” YouTube, American Syringomyelia Chiari Alliance Project, 7 Dec. 2016, <www.youtu.be/3jKH_DHadO8>.

4 Augustus A. White III, Manohar M. Panjabi, et al. “Clinical Biomechanics of the Spine.” By Augustus A. White III<www.leomed.at/listhoscan/white_90.pdf>

The Pain Relief Foundation, The Pain Relief Foundation, <www.thepainrelieffoundation.com/craniocervical-instability/>.

6 Bolognese, Paolo. Complex Posterior Fossa revisions. YouTube. December 7, 2016. <www.youtu.be/3jKH_DHadO8>.

7 Menezes, Arnold H. “Craniovertebral Junction Anomalies: Diagnosis and Management.”Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, vol. 4, no. 3, Sept. 1997, <www.sempedneurjnl.com/article/S1071-9091(97)80038-1/fulltext>.

Yang, Sun Y., et al. “A Review of the Diagnosis and Treatment of Atlantoaxial Dislocations.”Global Spine Journal, Georg Thieme Verlag KG, Aug. 2014, <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4111952/>.

9 Henderson, Fraser C., et al. “Neurological and Spinal Manifestations of the Ehlers–Danlos Syndromes.” American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C: Seminars in Medical Genetics, <www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajmg.c.31549/full>.

10 Henderson, Sr. , Fraser C. “Neurological Management of Hereditary Disoders of Hypermobility Connective Tissue Disorders.” Ehlers-Danlos Society Annual Conference 2015. Ehlers-Danlos Society Annual Conference 2015, 14 Aug. 2015, Baltimore, <www.ehlers-danlos.com/2015-annual-conference-files/Henderson_0.pdf>.

11 Hain, Timothy C. “Basilar Invagination, Basilar Impression and Atlantoaxial Subluxation.”Basilar Invagination, Basilar Impression and Atlantoaxial Subluxation, 19 Apr. 2013, <www.dizziness-and-balance.com/disorders/central/cerebellar/basilar%20invagination.htm>.

12 Kim, Louis J., et al. “JNS JOURNAL OF Neurosurgery OFFICIAL JOURNALS OF THE AANS since 1944.” Treatment of Basilar Invagination Associated with Chiari I Malformations in the Pediatric Population: Cervical Reduction and Posterior Occipitocervical Fusion | Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics, Vol 101, No 2, Nov. 2004, <www.thejns.org/doi/abs/10.3171/ped.2004.101.2.0189?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed>.

13 Henderson, Sr. , Fraser C. “Cranio-Cervical Instability in Patients with Hypermobility Connective Disorders.” OMICS International, OMICS International, 18 Apr. 2016, <www.omicsgroup.org/journals/craniocervical-instability-in-patients-with-hypermobility-connective-disorders-2165-7939-1000299.php?aid=71754#11>.

14 Bono, C M, et al. “Measurement Techniques for Upper Cervical Spine Injuries: Consensus Statement of the Spine Trauma Study Group.” Spine., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Mar. 2007, <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17334296>.

15 Henderson, Sr. , Fraser C. “Diagnosis and Treatment of Craniocervical Instability in the Chiari Patient.” Chiari and Syringomyelia Foundation Educational Lecture. 20 July 2011, Greater Metropolitan Washington Area, Greater Metropolitan Washington Area, <www.youtu.be/U33T8JFXvk0>.

16 Henderson, F C, et al. “Neuropathology of the Brainstem and Spinal Cord in End Stage Rheumatoid Arthritis: Implications for Treatment.” Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 1993, <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1005138/>.

17 Bolognese, Paolo A. “Surgical Techniques for Chiari Malformations.” YouTube, American Syringomyelia Chiari Alliance Project, 16 Mar. 2015, <www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfYmJnB6sPQ>.

18 Hwang, Steven W., et al. “C1–C2 Arthrodesis after Transoral Odontoidectomy and Suboccipital Craniectomy for Ventral Brain Stem Compression in Chiari I Patients.”European Spine Journal, Springer-Verlag, Sept. 2008, <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2527411/>.

Bridges are built as a means to assist people in getting over the things that obstruct their path. We are constantly facing obstacles when it comes to our health, so we decided to build a bridge! Chiari Bridges is a non-profit network built by Chiarians for Chiarians. Our goal is to provide information, substantiated by published studies, in a way that is easy to understand. We encourage readers, to not only read our articles, but look up every study for themselves and read that too. Print it out and sit down with a highlighter; read it as many times as necessary until you understand; then use it to talk to your doctors. Our doctors are under no obligation to read our articles, but they should be willing to read officially published studies from journals, especially those specific to their profession. As many of our authors are patients as well, all authors sharing original pieces will be writing under pseudo-ghost names, to protect them from being black-listed by their doctors. Chiari Bridges is not affiliated with any physician or medical group. You should in no way use this site as a replacement for diagnosis, treatment, or medical from a qualified medical professional. The information provided on our website is strictly for educational purposes, in order to help further the understanding of Chiari, and its associated conditions. Our goal is to share our collective experiences and the information we have gathered, with those in need of answers, that it may increase your knowledge and guide you in conversations with your doctors.