Symptoms of Chiari Malformation

Someone may have a Type I Chiari malformation for years without knowing it — Chiari often produces no symptoms until adolescence or early adulthood. The malformation is sometimes identified when a patient has an MRI scan for another reason, but it's more typically identified after symptoms begin to appear. Those symptoms may include:

  • Headache that gets worse with exertion, including exercise, coughing, sneezing, or laughing. The pain may also be experienced with certain movements, such as bending forward.
  • Neck pain, specifically at the base of the neck or between the shoulder blades.
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling or numbness, usually in the hands (and rarely in the legs)
  • Unsteady gait
  • Loss of fine motor skills
  • Difficulty swallowing or choking on liquids
  • Spine deformity (scoliosis)

Since these symptoms are commonly found in other medical conditions, Type I Chiari can be difficult to diagnose and is often misdiagnosed. (See Diagnosing and Treating Type I Chiari.)

Infants with any type of Chiari malformation may show symptoms that include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Gagging or vomiting
  • Irritability during feeding
  • Excessive drooling
  • A weak cry
  • Arm weakness
  • Stiff neck
  • Problems breathing
  • Developmental delays
  • Failure to gain weight

Infants with Type II, Type III or Type IV Chiari have more obvious signs and are often diagnosed while still in utero. These types of Chiari are very rare, and can cause serious neurological issues or death.

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  • Chair and Neurosurgeon-in-Chief
  • Margaret and Robert J. Hariri, MD ’87, PhD ’87 Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: 212-746-4684
  • Vice Chair for Academic Affairs
  • Professor of Neurological Surgery, Pediatric Neurosurgery
  • Associate Residency Director
Phone: 212-746-2363
  • Victor and Tara Menezes Clinical Scholar in Neuroscience
  • Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery in Pediatrics
Phone: 212-746-2363
  • Vice Chair, Neurological Surgery
  • Director, Pediatric Neurological Surgery
Phone: 212-746-2363

Reviewed by Jeffrey Greenfield, Ph.D., M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: April 2021

Weill Cornell Medicine Neurological Surgery 525 East 68 Street, Box 99 New York, NY 10065 Phone: 866-426-7787