Chiari malformations are structural faults that cause the lower part of the brain to press against and through the opening at the base of the skull. They may cause a range of symptoms, including digestive problems.

The condition typically results from structural problems in the brain and spinal cord during fetal development. A person may also develop Chiari malformations later in life if they experience excessive spinal fluid drainage due to traumatic injury, disease, or infection.

This article explores the possible digestive issues a person with Chiari malformations may experience, how doctors diagnose Chiari malformations, and the treatment options available. It also discusses when a person needs to speak with a doctor.

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Healthcare professionals classify Chiari malformations into types 1–4, with type 1 being the most common. Experts use the classifications to indicate the severity of the condition and the parts of the brain that protrude into the spinal canal.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the estimated prevalence of Chiari malformation in the general population is slightly below 1 in 1000.

As Chiari malformations cause the lower part of the brain to press against and through the opening of the base of the skull, they have the potential to impact various structures, including:

  • the brainstem
  • the spinal cord
  • the cerebellum, which is the area of the brain at the back of the skull between the cerebrum – the largest part of the brain – and the brainstem

The brainstem acts as a connection between the cerebrum and the cerebellum. It is responsible for various functions in the body, including:

Because of this, Chiari malformations have the potential to cause digestive issues, which may include:

Related conditions

A person with a Chiari malformation may also develop syringomyelia. This condition occurs when the cerebrospinal fluid, which protects and surrounds the brain and spinal cord, forms a cyst within the spinal cord.

A cyst is a sac-like structure that often contains a liquid, similar to a blister. As the cyst enlarges, it can compress sensitive spinal cord and spinal nerves nearby.

Syringomyelia may cause a range of symptoms, which include loss of bowel and bladder control.

Some people with Chiari malformations also have spina bifida, which is the incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord. When this happens, the spinal cord remains open in one area of the back and lower spine. The membranes and spinal cord protrude through the opening in the spine, creating a sac on the back.

Spina bifida may also cause a range of symptoms that vary between people, including changes in bladder and bowel control.

There is currently no definitive prenatal test to determine if a fetus has developed a Chiari malformation.

As there is an association with other congenital anomalies, doctors may perform tests for Chiari malformations on a fetus with other congenital anomalies. For example, a healthcare professional may notice a Chiari malformation on an ultrasound scan before birth.

In later life, a doctor may depend on signs and symptoms to diagnose Chiari malformations. The doctor may conduct a physical exam. As Chiari malformations may affect the brainstem, the cerebellum, and the spinal cord, the doctor may test a person’s:

For further confirmation of a diagnosis, a doctor may also request:

The treatment of Chiari malformations depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the Chiari malformation and the effect of symptoms on a person’s day-to-day life.

For example, if a person is not exhibiting symptoms of Chiari malformations and can carry out day-to-day activities regularly, they may only require regular monitoring by their doctor and occasional imaging scans.

In the majority of cases, surgery is the only feasible treatment option to help reduce symptoms of Chiari malformations and stop the progression of the condition.

A healthcare professional can recommend appropriate treatment on an individual basis.

It is best to speak with a doctor if a person experiences any symptoms of Chiari malformations that interfere with their daily life or cause significant discomfort.

Some nondigestive symptoms may include:

It is also best to speak with a healthcare professional about any new symptoms or symptom changes.

Chiari malformations are structural problems in the brain that impact various structures, including the brainstem, the spinal cord, and the cerebellum.

Chiari malformations may cause digestive issues in some people, such as difficulty swallowing and excessive gagging, vomiting, and drooling. People who develop syringomyelia or have spina bifida may also experience loss of bowel control.

Treatment for Chiari malformations will depend on the severity of the condition. However, surgery is typically the primary treatment option. A person can speak with a doctor for further advice about Chiari malformations and digestive problems.