Spina bifida, the incomplete development of the brain, spine and/or the meninges, affects 1,500 to 2,000 children each year. That means approximately 8 babies are born every day in the U.S. with spina bifida.

The reasons why the neural tube defect develops are not clear. What is known is that during early fetal development when the spinal column is forming, something goes wrong that prevents the spine from closing completely. That leaves part of the spine or brain exposed or vulnerable, leading to varying degrees of disability.

While the exact cause of spina bifida is unclear, it's thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, nutritional, and environmental factors. Folic acid (one of the B vitamins) deficiency in mothers is considered a major contributing factor, which is why women considering pregnancy and those who are newly pregnant are advised to take vitamin supplements containing folic acid.

Spina bifida is often diagnosed during early prenatal screening exams and ultrasounds. Sometimes, it's diagnosed after birth through x-ray and other diagnostic tests.

4 Types of Spina Bifida

1. Occult Spinal Dysraphism is the most common and mildest form and may be present in 10 to 20 percent of the general population. It occurs when one or more vertebrae are malformed. It's usually not a visibly obvious deformity as the spine is covered by skin. On babies, doctors look for a dimple or redness at the bottom of the spine, which may indicate a problem.

2. Closed neural tube defects occur when the spinal cord is affected by a malformation of fat, bone, or membranes. This can cause a range of symptoms and deformities from mild or no symptoms to severe symptoms, such as urinary and bowel paralysis.

3. Meningocele means that spinal fluid and meninges (the lining of the spinal column and brain) protrude through a defect in a vertebra, which may or may not be covered with skin. Like neural tube defects, it can cause a range of symptoms from mild to severe.

4. Myelomeningocele is the most severe form of spina bifida. The spinal cord is exposed through an opening in the spine causing partial or complete motor paralysis and sensory deficits in the body below the spinal opening. Some people may be unable to walk or have urinary and bowel dysfunction.

Treating Spina Bifida

There is currently no cure for nerve or spinal cord damage that occurs with spina bifida. Treatment depends on the severity of the disability. Many people with mild spina bifida need no treatment at all while people with severe forms need a wide variety of supportive services.

Research on prevention and treatment options are ongoing and fewer cases of spina bifida are seen in developed countries now than ever before—in part because of research that indicated improved nutrition and folic acid supplements taken before pregnancy help prevent this disorder.

For more information about spina bifida, log on to the Spina Bifida Association website.

David Levine, MD, reviewed this article.




Spina Bifida Association
What Is Spina Bifida?

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Spina Bifida Fact Sheet