Unraveling the riddle of syringomyelia

Neurosurg Rev. 2006 Oct;29(4):251-63; discussion 264. doi: 10.1007/s10143-006-0029-5. Epub 2006 May 31.


The pathophysiology of syringomyelia development is not fully understood. Current prevailing theories suggest that increased pulse pressure in the subarachnoid space forces cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) through the spinal cord into the syrinx. It is generally accepted that the syrinx consists of CSF. The here-proposed intramedullary pulse pressure theory instead suggests that syringomyelia is caused by increased pulse pressure in the spinal cord and that the syrinx consists of extracellular fluid. A new principle is introduced implying that the distending force in the production of syringomyelia is a relative increase in pulse pressure in the spinal cord compared to that in the nearby subarachnoid space. The formation of a syrinx then occurs by the accumulation of extracellular fluid in the distended cord. A previously unrecognized mechanism for syrinx formation, the Bernoulli theorem, is also described. The Bernoulli theorem or the Venturi effect states that the regional increase in fluid velocity in a narrowed flow channel decreases fluid pressure. In Chiari I malformations, the systolic CSF pulse pressure and downward motion of the cerebellar tonsils are significantly increased. This leads to increased spinal CSF velocities and, as a consequence of the Bernoulli theorem, decreased fluid pressure in narrow regions of the spinal CSF pathways. The resulting relatively low CSF pressure in the narrowed CSF pathway causes a suction effect on the spinal cord that distends the cord during each systole. Syringomyelia develops by the accumulation of extracellular fluid in the distended cord. In posttraumatic syringomyelia, the downwards directed systolic CSF pulse pressure is transmitted and reflected into the spinal cord below and above the traumatic subarachnoid blockage, respectively. The ensuing increase in intramedullary pulse pressure distends the spinal cord and causes syringomyelia on both sides of the blockage. The here-proposed concept has the potential to unravel the riddle of syringomyelia and affords explanations to previously unanswered clinical and theoretical problems with syringomyelia. It also explains why syringomyelia associated with Chiari I malformations may develop in any part of the spinal cord including the medullary conus. Syringomyelia thus preferentially develops where the systolic CSF flow causes a suction effect on the spinal cord, i.e., at or immediately caudal to physiological or pathological encroachments of the spinal subarachnoid space.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / pathology
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Humans
  • Medulla Oblongata / physiopathology
  • Spinal Cord / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / pathology
  • Syringomyelia / physiopathology*