Spina bifida is a birth defect, part of a group of neural tube defects, that develop in a baby’s brain and spinal cord and the tissues that enclose them. Typically, the neural tube forms in early pregnancy and closes by the 28th day after conception. With spina bifida, a portion of the neural tube fails to develop, or it does not close properly. This causes defects in the spinal cord and bones of the spine.
Occurring in varying forms of severity, spina bifida is grouped into three distinctions:
Spina bifida occulta – This mildest form results in a separation or gap in one or more of the vertebrae of the spine. The spinal nerves are rarely involved, so most children with this form of the condition will have no signs or symptoms and will not experience any neurological issues. In fact, many people with this form of spina bifida may not even know it.
Meningocele – This is a rare form of spina bifida in which the protective membranes around the spinal cord push out through openings in the vertebrae. The spinal cord will still develop normally, so these membranes can be removed by surgery with little to no damage to crucial nerve pathways.
Myelomeningocele – Also known as “open spina bifida”, this is the most severe form, and the form most people typically think of when they mention the condition. The baby’s spinal canal remains open along several vertebrae in the lower or middle back. Both the membranes and the spinal cord protrude at birth, forming a sac on the baby’s back. In some cases, skin covers the sac, but in others, tissues and nerves are exposed, leaving the baby prone to life-threatening infection. Neurological impairment is also common, including weak leg muscles, sometimes involving paralysis; bowel and bladder problems, seizures, and orthopedic challenges.
Doctors aren’t certain what causes spina bifida. As with many conditions, it appears to be a combination of genetics and environmental risk factors. Your medical team will likely suspect or diagnose your baby’s condition during pregnancy, so mothers and their physicians can prepare in advance. Talk to your doctor about prenatal testing if you have a family history of spina bifida, or any concerns.
Spina bifida treatment depends on the severity of the condition. While some babies will require no treatment, prenatal or postnatal surgery may be an option for more severe forms.