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What is the Cerebellar Tonsil?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The cerebellar tonsil is a structure in the brain located at the base of one of the cerebellar hemispheres, the two halves of the cerebellum. Most people have two cerebellar tonsils, unless they have an unusual brain malformation. These structures can be seen as small rounded lobes, one at the bottom of each side of the cerebellum, and they are readily visible in cross section. Disorders of the cerebellum can involve one or both tonsils, perhaps most notably in the case of a Chiari malformation, a condition that may be congenital or acquired.

Like the rest of the cerebellum, the cerebellar tonsil has a number of functions related to motor function. This part of the brain provides balance, as well as coordination for motor tasks, and it also is involved in the formation of memories related to movement. Some emotional responses are moderated here, and it also channels sensory input from various areas of the body to other parts of the brain.

Unlike the cerebrum, involved in higher order cognition, the cerebellum is concerned with more basic physical functions. It is a critical part of the brain, as it regulates a variety of movement-related activities including walking, controlling the hands to perform tasks, and balancing. Many people with disorders in this part of the brain develop ataxia, a distinctive staggering, doddering gait caused by poor motor control, and a limited sense of balance. They may need to use canes or walkers to prevent falls and in some cases need a mobility device like a wheelchair.

In the case of people with a Chiari malformation, pressure inside the skull forces the cerebellar tonsils through the foramen magnum, literally “the big hole” in the skull. The foramen magnum is designed to create an opening for the spinal cord and associated structures, and it does not readily accommodate other structures as well. People with this condition can experience obstructions of cerebrospinal fluid and may develop problems with balance and motor skills.

Some people are born with this malformation. It is caused by errors during fetal development and may manifest in a variety of ways, depending on how severe it is. Other people acquire it after head trauma, when pressure inside the skull may force brain tissues into unusual spaces as they fight for room. Treatments can include surgeries where part of the cerebellar tonsil is actually removed to shorten it and relieve pressure. Decisions about treatment are made after evaluating medical imaging studies to determine the severity of the problem.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon966133 — On Aug 17, 2014

I have chiari malformation. I had my cerebellar tonsils removed in March 2014. My symptoms included balance problems, hand tremors, etc., etc., have pretty much disappeared. I'm in law enforcement and am back doing what I love. I had the best neurosurgeon in the state. Many people fly in from other states to see her.

By anon326262 — On Mar 20, 2013

My husband's recent MRI of the brain and brain stem showed "The cerebellar tonsils are above the foramen magnum." I am wondering just what, if anything, this indicates.

By wavy58 — On Oct 06, 2012

I wonder if the cerebellar tonsils help a person remember dance moves. Since they play a part in balance and in memory of movements, I would assume that they are crucial to a dancer being able to remember her routine.

I like to dance, and I sometimes wonder how my body is able to remember all the moves to a four-minute song. Perhaps the cerebellar tonsil plays a part in this. All I know is that it doesn't seem to be something I can call to mind consciously.

By seag47 — On Oct 05, 2012

@StarJo – You're right about Chiari malformation surgery being the only option of treatment. I've heard that many doctors recommend waiting until you show certain symptoms, though.

My cousin had this malformation, and she started getting bad headaches. She also developed a hoarse voice, and her hands and feet went numb.

Some doctors will recommend removing part of the actual cerebellar tonsils, but others think you should just remove part of the bone to make more room. My cousin's doctor believe in removing bony tissue to relieve the pressure, and since she had the surgery, her symptoms have started to go away.

By StarJo — On Oct 04, 2012

I am friends with a girl who has a Chiairi malformation. Her doctor doesn't want to do surgery, though. He thinks that it is just too risky.

From what I've read about this condition, surgery to relieve pressure on the cerebellar tonsils is the only thing that can be done. There is no other treatment.

Is it normal for people with this malformation to undergo surgery? Is it just a last resort, or is it the common treatment?

By Perdido — On Oct 03, 2012

I never would have thought that the brain had tonsils. The only tonsils I knew about were the ones in my throat, and I had those removed as a kid. I suppose that removal of cerebellar tonsils would cause much bigger problems than keeping them, though.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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