Craniospinal Hydrodynamics

The Role of the Craniocervical Junction in Craniospinal Hydrodynamics and Neurodegenerative Conditions – Neurol Res Int. 2015 – Free full-text PMC article

I found this article while I was searching for the possible causes of my headaches, which seem related to high CSF pressure. I do not have Chiari, but suspect that my unstable neck could occasionally constrict the flow of CSF and thus raise the pressure in my skull to painful levels.

The craniocervical junction (CCJ) is a potential choke point for craniospinal hydrodynamics and may play a causative or contributory role in the pathogenesis and progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease,

as well as many other neurological conditions including hydrocephalus, idiopathic intracranial hypertension, migraines, seizures, silent-strokes, affective disorders, schizophrenia, and psychosis  

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the critical role of the CCJ in craniospinal hydrodynamics and to stimulate further research that may lead to new approaches for the prevention and treatment of the above neurodegenerative and neurological conditions.


The CCJ comprises the base of the skull, atlas (C1), and axis (C2), as well as muscles and connective tissues that connect the skull to the cervical spine. It further includes the dura mater and dentate ligament attachments of the brain and cord to the foramen magnum and upper cervical spine

Moreover, the CCJ links the vascular and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) systems in the cranial vault to those in the spinal canal.

Craniospinal hydrodynamics refer to the relationship between blood and CSF volume, pressure, and flow in the relatively closed confines of the compartments of the cranial vault and spinal canal.

Malformations and misalignments of the CCJ cause deformation and obstruction of blood and CSF pathways and flow between the cranial vault and spinal canal that can result in faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics and subsequent neurological and neurodegenerative disorders.

While the exact source, such as the arteries at the base of the brain or choroidal vessels, is still debated, in either case, it is generally accepted that craniospinal hydrodynamics are primarily driven by arterial pulsations [9–19] and further modified by respiration, Valsalva maneuvers, body movements, upright posture, inversion, and recumbent position

The arterial pulsations pump a relatively large volume of blood into the brain and cord during systole causing a spike in intracranial pressure (ICP).

To prevent damage to the brain from excess pulsatility pressure, the increase in volume must be matched by a simultaneous increase in drainage of venous blood and CSF from the cranial vault.

In addition to the internal jugular veins humans developed an accessory drainage system comprising emissary veins that link the dural sinuses to the vertebral venous plexus and serve as the primary drainage routes of the brain during upright posture

Because the dural sinuses, facial veins, and vertebral veins have no valves, the direction of venous blood flow is determined by hydrostatic pressure gradients.

The pressure gradients produced by upright posture cause blood to flow preferentially from the dural sinuses into the vertebral veins. Conversely, inversion reverses the pressure gradient causing blood to flow from the vertebral veins to the dural sinuses, which increases intracranial and intraocular pressures

There are many different types of malformations and anomalies of the CCJ such as atlantooccipital assimilation, basiocciput hypoplasia, malformations of the condyles, and malformations of the dens

Other malformations, such as hypoplasia of the foramen magnum, hypoplasia of the jugular foramen, and anomalies of the odontoid process of axis can also affect craniospinal hydrodynamics and cause hydrocephalus

Connective tissue disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, can cause tears, degeneration, ligament laxity, and cranial settling. Cranial settling causes the skull to rock back on the CCJ and sink onto the upper cervical spine during upright posture [66, 67]. In contrast to the brainstem getting pushed down into the foramen magnum as occurs in Chiari malformation, cranial settling shifts the position of the CCJ upward relative to the brainstem. The outcome is similar to basilar invagination and can cause hydrocephalus.

In addition to blocking CSF flow and causing hydrocephalus, malformations, anomalies, and misalignments of the CCJ can obstruct blood flow through the vertebral arteries [59–63] and veins that can lead to chronic ischemia and edema.

Furthermore, chronic edema decreases perfusion pressure and arterial flow in the brain which can result in oxidative stress and chronic ischemia as well. Oxidative stress and chronic ischemia have been implicated in the cause of atrophy of the brain.

In brief, the CCJ is a potential choke point for blood and CSF flow between the cranial vault and spinal canal that can cause faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics and subsequent chronic ischemia, edema, and hydrocephalus

Upright posture and motion of the cervical spine compound the strains and deformation of blood and CSF pathways of the CCJ further contributing to blockage of flow.

The CCJ and CSF Flow

CSF is produced in the ventricles. The lateral ventricles are the highest and largest ventricles located in the left and right hemispheres beneath the corpus callosum

The correct volume and pressure of CSF in the brain are also important for turgor, which is necessary to maintain openings, pathways, separation, and spatial orientation of the different parts of the brain [186, 187], as well as prevent the brain from sagging and sinking

More importantly, CSF buffers incoming arterial pulsations and pressure waves. It also prevents the veins in the brain from collapsing due to negative pressure that occurs during upright posture. It does so due to a simultaneous drop in CSF pressure in the subarachnoid space, which offsets the drop in pressure inside the veins.

Chiari malformations are typically attributed to malformations of the brainstem in children in which the lower portion of the cerebellum, called the tonsils, are found to be descended five millimeters or more beneath the level of foramen magnum into the CCJ. In contrast to an oversized cerebellum, research has shown that Chiari malformations are often due to hypoplasia of the posterior fossa resulting in crowding and downward displacement of the cerebellar tonsils

Although still hotly debated, most of the CSF in spinal cord and cisterns eventually flows up through the subarachnoid space and CCJ toward the top of the brain where it is absorbed back into venous circulation by the arachnoid granulations.

The arachnoid granulations are special one-way valves that develop during infancy as a child starts to hold its head up, crawl, and walk.

In addition to flow within the craniospinal compartment, research has further shown that CSF flows along cranial nerve roots, especially the olfactory and optic nerves. In fact, enlargement of the optic nerve sheath is a sign of increased CSF volume and possible hydrocephalus.

Hydrocephalus, Hydromyelia, and CCJ

Classic hydrocephalus is an increase in CSF volume coupled with ventriculomegaly.

a new definition for hydrocephalus is long overdue and so he proposed one as a starting point for discussion in which he maintains that “hydrocephalus is an active distension of the ventricular system of the brain resulting from inadequate passage of CSF from its point of production within the cerebral ventricles to its point of absorption into the systemic circulation”

Some authors maintain that hydrocephalus is simply cerebral edema regardless of the cause or location of the excess CSF volume

The generally accepted theory is that, aside from frank blockage, such as stenosis of the cerebral aqueduct, the cause of hydrocephalus is due to insufficient absorption, which occurs primarily by way of the arachnoid granulations, as well as arterial and venous capillary routes.

One of the primary causes of hydrocephalus due to blockage of CSF flow is stenosis or mass effects causing compression of the cerebral aqueduct that links the third and fourth ventricle

Further adding to the theory regarding the role of the CCJ in faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics and neurodegenerative diseases, in 2008 Williams proposed a unifying hypothesis for the cause of hydrocephalus, Chiari malformations, syringomyelia, anencephaly, and spina bifida based on dissociation of CSF flow between the cranial vault and spinal canal

In addition to ischemia, edema, structural strains, and pressure waves, hydrocephalus causes sluggish CSF flow.

A syrinx, also known as syringomyelia, is enlargement of a portion of the central canal of the cord. It is the homolog of hydrocephalus and sometimes referred to as hydromyelia.

There are currently three basic theories regarding the cause of syrinx formation and its maintenance.

Most syrinxes are found in the cervical and thoracic cord. They are frequently associated with Chiari malformations and attributed to blockage and faulty CSF flow through the CCJ

A syrinx located in the lower one-third of the cord is called a terminal syrinx. A terminal syrinx is often associated with a tethered cord and likewise attributed to faulty CSF flow. Tethered cords are also associated with Chiari malformations and scoliosis

In any case, the CCJ is the critical link between hydraulics in the cranial vault and spinal canal that can affect CSF flow and pulsatility in the brain and cord.


For the most part, the cranial vault is a closed container with little room for expansion or compliance.

CSF volume and pressure in the cranial vault are directly related and pressure increases exponentially with increases in volume.

The total volume of the cranial vault is a combination of brain, arterial blood, venous blood, CSF, and ISF.

Arterial volume and pressure in the cranial vault fluctuate causing pulsatile flow and pressure waves in the brain. Arterial flow can be increased or decreased by cerebral autoregulatory circulatory controls located in the cavernous and suboccipital cavernous sinus in order to maintain a relatively stable arterial supply.

An increase in brain, blood, or CSF volume in the cranial vault, which occurs in space occupying lesions, hemorrhages, and hydrocephalus, can cause compression of the bridging veins and venous hypertension

Venous hypertension decreases cerebral perfusion pressure and thus arterial inflows. Chronic decreases in arterial flow can lead to oxidative stress, ischemia, and subsequent atrophy

In brief, craniospinal hydrodynamics are a complex interaction between brain, blood, and CSF in the relatively closed compartments of the cranial vault and spinal canal compounded by cardiac cycles and arterial pulsations that cause continuous fluctuations in blood volume and ICP.

Faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics have been associated with hydrocephalus, anomalies of the CCJ, Chiari malformations (cerebellar tonsillar ectopia), craniosynostosis, craniofacial anomalies, and Dandy-Walker complex in children.

Faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics may also play a role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, dementia, and motor neuron diseases, as well as other neurological conditions including migraines, silent-strokes, seizures, psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, and mania

Further studies using upright and cine MRI coupled with computer modeling are needed to determine the role of malformations and misalignments of the CCJ and spondylosis, stenosis and scoliosis in the lower spine in faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics, and neurodegenerative and neurological conditions, as well as the impact of the manual, mechanical, and surgical correction of structural strains and faulty craniospinal hydrodynamics on patient pathology and symptomatology.  

4 thoughts on “Craniospinal Hydrodynamics

  1. Pingback: Headaches common with EDS | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

  2. Pingback: CerebroSpinal Fluid Flow and Pain Management | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

  3. Pingback: Neurological and Spinal Manifestations of EDS | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

  4. Pingback: New Reference Page for Headaches Related to EDS | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

Other thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.