Imaging-Based Features of Headaches in Chiari Malformation Type I

Neurosurgery. 2015 Jul;77(1):96-103; discussion 103. doi: 10.1227/NEU.0000000000000740.


Background: Suboccipital cough-induced headaches are considered a hallmark symptom of Chiari malformation type I (CMI). However, non--Valsalva-related suboccipital headaches and headaches in other locations are also common in CMI. The diagnostic significance and the underlying factors associated with these different headaches types are not well understood.

Objective: To compare cranial morphology and hydrodynamics in 3 types of headaches in CMI to better understand the pathophysiological basis for the different headache characteristics.

Methods: Twenty-two cranial physiological and morphological measures were obtained with specialized magnetic resonance imaging scans from 63 symptomatic pretreated CMI patients, 40 with suboccipital headaches induced by Valsalva maneuvers (34 women; age, 36 ± 10 years), 15 with non--Valsalva-related suboccipital headaches (10 women; age, 33 ± 9 years), 8 with nonsuboccipital non--Valsalva-induced headaches (8 women; age, 39 ± 13 years), and 37 control subjects (24 women; age, 36 ± 12 years). Group differences were identified with the use of the 2-tailed Student t test.

Results: Posterior cranial fossa markers of CMI were similar among the 3 headache subtypes. However, the Valsalva-related suboccipital headaches cohort demonstrated a significantly lower intracranial compliance index than the non--Valsalva-related suboccipital headaches cohort (7.5 ± 3.4 vs 10.9 ± 4.9), lower intracranial volume change during the cardiac cycle (0.48 ± 0.19 vs 0.61 ± 0.16 mL), and higher magnetic resonance imaging--derived intracranial pressure (11.1 ± 4.3 vs 7.7 ± 2.8 mm Hg; P = .02). The Valsalva-related suboccipital headaches cohort had smaller intracranial and lateral ventricular volumes compared with the healthy cohort. The non--Valsalva-related suboccipital headaches cohort had reduced venous drainage through the jugular veins.

Conclusion: Valsalva-induced worsening of occipital headaches appears to be related to a small intracranial volume rather than the smaller posterior cranial fossa. This explains the reduced intracranial compliance and corresponding higher pressure measured in CMI patients with headaches affected by Valsalva maneuvers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / complications*
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / pathology*
  • Arnold-Chiari Malformation / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Headache / etiology*
  • Headache / pathology*
  • Headache / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Valsalva Maneuver