What’s In A Name? An Expansive Review of the Name and Definition of Chiari Malformation
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.
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. 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.” 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.
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.
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>.
5 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>.
6 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>.