What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida is a type of birth defect called a neural tube defect. It occurs when the bones of the spine (vertebrae) don't form properly around part of the baby's spinal cord. Spina bifida can be mild or severe.
- The mild form is the most common. It usually doesn't cause problems or need treatment. You can't see the defect, but some people may have a dimple, birthmark, or hairy patch on their back. Most people with this form don't know they have it until they get a back X-ray for another reason.
- A rare and more severe form is meningocele (say "muh-NIN-juh-seel"). In this form, fluid leaks out of the spine and pushes against the skin. You may see a bulge in the skin. In many cases, there are no other symptoms.
- The most rare and severe form is myelomeningocele (say "my-uh-loh-muh-NIN-juh-seel"). It's what most people mean when they say "spina bifida." Part of the spinal nerves push out of the spinal canal, and the nerves are often damaged. You may see a bulge in the skin. In some babies, the skin is open and the nerves are exposed.
What are the symptoms of spina bifida?
Your child's symptoms will depend on how severe the defect is. Most children with the mild form of spina bifida don't have any problems from it.
In many cases, children with meningocele don't have any symptoms.
Children with the most severe form of spina bifida often have spine and brain issues that cause serious problems. They may have:
- Little or no feeling in their legs, feet, or arms, so they may not be able to move those parts of the body.
- Bladder or bowel problems, such as leaking urine or having a hard time passing stools.
- Fluid buildup in the brain (hydrocephalus). Even when it is treated, this may cause seizures, learning problems, or vision problems.
- A curve in their spine, such as scoliosis.
How is spina bifida diagnosed?
During pregnancy, you can have a blood test (quad screen) and an ultrasound of the developing baby. These tests check for signs of spina bifida and other problems. If test results suggest a birth defect, you can choose to have an amniocentesis. This test helps confirm if the baby has spina bifida.
After birth, a doctor can usually tell if a baby has spina bifida by how the baby's back looks. If spina bifida is suspected, the doctor may do an X-ray, an MRI, or a CT scan to see if the defect is mild or severe.
How is spina bifida treated?
Most children with the mild form of spina bifida don't need treatment. Children with meningocele may not need treatment either. But children with the most severe form usually need surgery. Sometimes surgery to correct severe spina bifida can be done before a baby is born.
A child who has hydrocephalus will need surgery to put in a drainage tube called a shunt. It relieves pressure on the brain by draining excess fluid into the belly. This keeps the swelling from causing more damage to the brain.
Experts such as physical therapists and occupational therapists work with children who have severe spina bifida. The work starts soon after the child's birth. These therapists can teach parents and caregivers how to do exercises and activities with the child.
Some children may need a brace, a wheelchair, or other aids. Children with bladder control problems may need help using a catheter each day to prevent infection and kidney damage. To help prevent bowel problems, parents usually begin working with the doctor or nurse on managing bowel care as soon as the child starts eating solid food. As children with severe spina bifida grow, other treatments and surgeries may be needed to manage problems that arise.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.