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Jessica L. Houk, Timothy J. Amrhein, Linda Gray, Michael D. Malinzak, and Peter G. Kranz


Chiari malformation type 1 (CM-1) and spontaneous intracranial hypotension (SIH) are causes of headache in which cerebellar tonsillar ectopia (TE) may be present. An accurate method for differentiating these conditions on imaging is needed to avoid diagnostic confusion. Here, the authors sought to determine whether objective measurements of midbrain morphology could distinguish CM-1 from SIH on brain MRI.


This is a retrospective case-control series comparing neuroimaging in consecutive adult subjects with CM-1 and SIH. Measurements obtained from brain MRI included previously reported measures of brain sagging: TE, slope of the third ventricular floor (3VF), pontomesencephalic angle (PMA), mamillopontine distance, lateral ventricular angle, internal cerebral vein–vein of Galen angle, and displacement of iter (DOI). Clivus length (CL), an indicator of posterior fossa size, was also measured. Measurements for the CM-1 group were compared to those for the entire SIH population (SIHall) as well as a subgroup of SIH patients with > 5 mm of TE (SIHTE subgroup).


Highly significant differences were observed between SIHall and CM-1 groups in the following measures: TE (mean ± standard deviation, 3.1 ± 5.7 vs 9.3 ± 3.5 mm), 3VF (−16.8° ± 11.2° vs −2.1° ± 4.6°), PMA (44.8° ± 13.1° vs 62.7° ± 9.8°), DOI (0.2 ± 4.1 vs 3.8 ± 1.6 mm), and CL (38.3 ± 4.5 vs 44.0 ± 3.3 mm; all p < 0.0001). Eight (16%) of 50 SIH subjects had TE > 5 mm; in this subgroup (SIHTE), a cutoff value of < −15° for 3VF and < 45° for PMA perfectly discriminated SIH from CM-1 (sensitivity and specificity = 1.0). DOI showed perfect specificity (1.0) in detecting SIH among both groups. No subjects with SIH had isolated TE without other concurrent findings of midbrain sagging.


Measures of midbrain sagging, including cutoff values for 3VF and PMA, discriminate CM-1 from SIH and may help to prevent misdiagnosis and unnecessary surgery.