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J Neurol Sci. 2004 May 15;220(1-2):3-21.

The pathogenesis of syringomyelia associated with lesions at the foramen magnum: a critical review of existing theories and proposal of a new hypothesis.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, New York University Medical School, 400 East 34th Street, RIRM-311, New York, NY 10016, USA.


Syringomyelia is frequently accompanied by an extramedullary lesion at the foramen magnum, particularly a Chiari I malformation. Although syringomyelia associated with foramen magnum obstruction has characteristic clinical, radiological, and neuropathological features, its pathogenesis remains unclear. Currently prevalent hydrodynamical theories assert that obstruction of the subarachnoid space at the foramen magnum interferes with flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) between the spinal and the intracranial subarachnoid compartments. As a result, spinal CSF is driven into the spinal cord through the perivascular spaces to form a syrinx. These theories are implausible biophysically because none postulates a pump adequate to drive fluid through these spaces. None of the theories can explain why syrinx pressure is higher than CSF pressure; why extensive gliosis, edema, and vascular wall thickening regularly occur; and why the composition of syrinx fluid is not identical with that of CSF. A new theory of pathogenesis is proposed to address these difficulties. In the presence of subarachnoid obstruction at the foramen magnum, a variety of activities, such as assuming the erect posture, coughing or straining, and pulsatile fluctuations of CSF pressure during the cardiac cycle, produce transiently higher CSF pressure above the block than below it. There are corresponding changes in transmural venous and capillary pressure favoring dilation of vessels below the block and collapse of vessels above the block. The spatially uneven change of vessel caliber produces mechanical stress on the spinal cord, particularly caudal to the block. The mechanical stress, coupled with venous and capillary dilation, partially disrupt the blood-spinal cord barrier, allowing ultrafiltration of crystalloids and accumulation of a protein-poor fluid. The proposed theory is consistent with the neuropathological findings in syringomyelia and with the pressure and composition of syrinx fluid. It also accounts for the prolonged course of syringomyelia and its aggravation by cough, strain, and assumption of an erect posture. It contributes to understanding the low incidence and the morphology of syringobulbia. It explains the poorly understood presentation of foramen magnum meningiomas with symptoms of a mid- to low-cervical myelopathy. The theory also affords an understanding of the late recurrence of symptoms in children with hydromyelia who are treated with a ventricular shunt.

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