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New surgery helps relieve Chiari headaches

July 6, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Chiari malformation causes headaches that last for days, weeks, even months. Victims can become debilitated and diagnosis can take months, even years. But one doctor says he can wipe out symptoms with a single surgery. "It started with depression. I had mood swings. I get bad coordination. I can't hold things I shake all the time," said Danielle Foster.

Foster said she would lie in bed all day, always tired and always in pain. Karen Wetherby and Carolyn Conley suffered from the same symptoms.

Wetherby suffered for seven years from Chiari malformation. Neurosurgeons say it's a defect in the base of the skull.

"A lot of times, they're told it's in their heads," said Dr. Michael Seiff, MD, a neurosurgeon at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas.

It happens when there's not enough space in the skull for the cerebellum and brainstem. The overcrowding creates too much pressure.

Dr. Seiff relieves the problem in a single surgery by making the hole at the bottom of the skull bigger. He drills into the head and removes bone at the base of the skull -- creating more space.

The surgery helped all three women. The headaches and numbness are gone. Fatigue and joint pain are disappearing.

"I absolutely feel like a new person," said Foster.

There is a risk of infection, which is a concern in any brain surgery. Dr. Seiff says he's had very few complications, and most of his patients experience some relief with the surgery.

Extra Information:

BACKGROUND: Chiari malformation is a condition in which the brain tissue protrudes into the spinal canal, according to the Mayo Clinic. It occurs when part of the skull is abnormally small or misshapen, causing pressure on the brain and forcing it downward. The adult form of the condition, known as Chiari malformation type 1, develops as the skull and brain are growing. Signs and symptoms may not occur until late childhood or adulthood. The most common pediatric form, known as Chiari malformation type II, is present at birth.

SYMPTOMS: Some common symptoms of Chiari malformation may include:

  • Headaches that are often severe and are precipitated with sudden coughing, sneezing or straining
  • Neck pain that can run down the shoulders at times
  • Poor hand coordination
  • Numbness and tingling of the hands and feet
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vision problems (blurred or double vision)
  • Slurred speech
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears

TREATMENTS: Medications may ease certain symptoms in a patient with Chiari malformation. Surgery is the only option to correct functional disturbances. Many people with type I Chiari malformation do not have symptoms and do not know they have the condition.

SURGERY: Michael Seiff, M.D., a neurosurgeon from Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas, performs a surgery that helps patients with Chiari malformation. To relieve the pressure on the brainstem, Dr. Seiff removes bone at the base of the skull, shrinks the elongated tonsils and enlarges the membrane covering the brain. Dr. Seiff says he has had very few complications, and an overwhelming majority of his patients experience some relief from the surgery.

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