Spina Bifida

What is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida is a defect of the spine and it is normally present at birth. When the neural tube does not develop completely or if it does not close, the spinal cord and nerves can sustain damage. The mildest type of this condition is generally unnoticeable and usually, there are no symptoms.

Meningocele causes fluid leakage from the spine and this can cause a protuberance in the spine. The most serious type, called myelomeningocele, causes some of the nerves in the spine to extend out from the spinal canal and it is not uncommon for a baby to be born with an opening in the skin that exposes these nerves. There are no known causes of this condition but it is believed that genetics and the environment play a role.

What are the Symptoms of Spina Bifida?

Babies who are born with myelomeningocele will have several serious symptoms. Some infants are unable to move their arms, legs and feet because they have an absence of feeling in these body parts.

Difficulties with their bladder and bowels is also a common symptom. Seizures and vision difficulties often occur due to the fluid that builds up in the brain. This symptom can also cause learning disabilities. A curved spine and the presence of scoliosis is also a common symptom of spina bifida.

Spina Bifida Causes

Spina Bifida (SB) is one of a cluster of birth defects known as neural tube defects. Spina Bifida means “split spine”, which is an accurate description of the condition where the spinal column does not form or close all the way down, leaving part of the spinal cord and surrounding nerves exposed in some way. The causes of Spina Bifida are not exactly understood, but scientists believe that it is a combination of genetics and environmental factors. One cause that has been pretty well proven is a folic acid deficiency in the mother. There are four forms of Spina Bifida: Meningocele, Myelomeningocele, Occult Spinal Dysraphism and Spina Bifida Occulta, which is the most common form of the condition. It is estimated that up to 15% of healthy adults have this form of Spina Bifida and are not aware of it because they experience no symptoms or problems from the condition.

How is Spina Bifida Treated?

Babies who are born with the milder types of spina bifida normally will not need any type of treatment. Those who have severe symptoms of this condition will often be required to have surgery. Children who have fluid buildup in the brain will need surgery for a drainage tube placement to release the compression of the fluid on the brain. Physical and occupational therapists play an important role in the treatment of children who have spina bifida. Many children need aids to help with mobility and they may use a brace or a wheelchair.

Spina Bifida Prevention

Spina Bifida occurs in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman is aware that she is pregnant. Because a folic acid deficiency in the mother has been linked to SB as a cause, doctors recommend that women take a preventive daily dose of 400 mcgs of folic acid during their child-bearing years, particularly given the fact that up to 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned. Spina Bifida is more likely to occur if the mother has the condition, has a sibling with the disease or has already had a child afflicted with SB. It is critical for mothers in this context to take folic acid daily. Doctors recommend that those mothers who fall into the high-risk category take up to 4000 mcgs daily to prevent SB in their unborn children. Spina Bifida can be detected during pregnancy through a blood test, amniocentesis or ultrasound. Other preventative measures center around good prenatal care including careful monitoring of over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies, controlling other medical conditions in the mother, such as obesity or diabetes, and avoiding risky behaviors like overheating.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 20, 2017