Spina bifida is a type of birth defect. It is a problem with how the spine and spinal cord develop. Spina bifida can begin to develop in a fetus before the mother even knows she is pregnant. In some cases, structures that should be inside the spinal canal can slip out. The structures affected may include:
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There are three kinds of spina bifida:
The cause of spina bifida is not known. There is a strong genetic factor for some with spina bifida.
Many studies have also shown a link between a low folate diet in the mother and birth defects. In particular, low folate diets are associated with an increased risk of spina bifida.
This condition is more likely in women. Other factors that increase the risk of spina bifida include:
Occulta may not have any symptoms. Some with this type may never know they have spina bifida. There may be a small tuft of hair or skin discoloration over the low back.
The immediate symptoms of meningocele and myelomeningocele include:
Infants and children with meningocele or myelomeningocele spina bifida may also experience long-term symptoms such as:
A blood test of the mother before birth can predict the risk of spina bifida. If the test predicts a high risk of neural tube defects, then two more tests may be done:
A diagnosis before birth can help you and your doctor make plans. Surgery may be needed soon after birth.
After birth, meningocele and myelomeningocele are usually found on physical exam. Many tests will be needed to find out which bones and nerves are involved. The kidneys may also be damaged. They will need to be watched closely.
Most children with occulta spina bifida will never be diagnosed. This condition rarely causes any symptoms. It also has few complications. It may be discovered during a routine medical exam. It may also be found following x-rays of the lower back.
Occulta spina bifida requires no treatment.
Meningocele spina bifida is treated with surgery. It is done to remove the cyst. This form of spina bifida can be treated.
Treatment for myelomeningocele spina bifida is complicated. It may include surgery to place the nerves and spinal cord back in place, physical therapy for any physical problems, and supportive care for any other complications. Treatments for myelomeningocele may include:
During surgery, the nerves, membrane, and spinal cord are put back into place. It will be done within 24-48 hours after birth. In some cases, the surgery may be done before birth.
Surgery is done as early as possible to prevent further nerve damage. It cannot reverse damage that has already occurred.
More serious forms of spina bifida may require more surgeries throughout childhood.
Therapists will teach parents how to exercise the infant's legs and feet. Walkers, braces, and crutches will often be needed to let the baby move around.
Complications of spina bifida can be ongoing and extensive. It will be important for you to work with a team of doctors. It is important for you to get help for your child's physical needs and emotional support for you and your family.
To help reduce the chance that your baby will be born with spina bifida:
March of Dimes
Spina Bifida Association of America
Sick Kids—The Hospital for Sick Children
Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Canada
Aherens K, Yazdy MM, Mitchell AA, Werler MM. Folic acid intake and spina bifida in the era of dietary folic acid fortification. Epidemiology. 2011;22(5):731-737.
Spina bifida. American Academy of Pediatrics' Healthy Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/developmental-disabilities/Pages/Spina-Bifida.aspx. Updated May 28, 2014. Accessed June 3, 2014.
Spina bifida. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 21, 2013. Accessed June 3, 2014.
12/3/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Shin M, Besser LM, Siffel C, et al. Prevalence of spina bifida among children and adolescents in 10 regions in the United States. Pediatrics. 2010;126(2):274-279.
Last reviewed June 2014 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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