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What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida is a birth defect involving the spine, spinal cord and the protective covering of the spinal cord called the meninges. It is part of a group of disorders, called neural tube defects, that can occur during pregnancy.
Spina bifida is caused by abnormal folding of cells during the early stages of an embryo's development (embryogenesis). The exact reason why this occurs is unknown, but genetic and nutritional factors, particularly a lack of folate (folic acid) during early pregnancy, appear to be involved. The abnormal folding of cells occurs specifically at the back of the embryo, on a specialized plate of cells called the neural plate.
During early development, the cells on the edge of the neural plate curl up at the edges and 'zip' together to form the neural tube. The neural tube later becomes the brain and spinal cord. Spina bifida occurs when the 'zip' does not close properly and part of the spinal cord is formed outside the tube. This can damage of the exposed spinal cord, which can affect various bodily functions.
Risk factors associated with spina bifida include:
- Family history of spina bifida;
- Having a previous child with spina bifida, and;
- Lack of folate during pregnancy.
There are three forms of spina bifida that vary in severity. These include:
The mildest form of spina bifida is known as occulta. In occulta, the spinal column is not completely closed at the back, but there is normally no nerve damage and the meninges (the protective coverings of the spinal cord) are also undamaged. A tuft of hair or dimple usually marks the site and most people with this condition do not experience any symptoms. In some cases, people can experience incontinence, backaches and leg muscle changes.
The moderate form of spina bifida is known as meningocele. This occurs when the meninges are pushed through the opening of the vertebrae to form a sac filled with cerebrospinal fluid. This generally does not affect the spinal cord and therefore symptoms may not be present. In some cases, there can be paralysis and incontinence problems.
The severe form of spina bifida is known as myelomeningocele. This condition occurs when both the meninges and the spinal cord protrude out of the vertebrae. This can cause the spinal cord to develop incorrectly, leading to spinal nerve damage. The severity of the condition depends on the location along the spine and the amount of spinal cord that is protruding. The condition tends to be worse when the opening is located higher on the back. This condition can lead to paralysis, incontinence problems and orthopedic problems including scoliosis. In some cases, tissues and nerves are exposed, which can lead to infections that may be life-threatening.
Signs and symptoms
Depending on the spinal location, type and severity of spina bifida, various signs and symptoms may be present. These may include:
Methods for diagnosis
If you are pregnant, there are prenatal tests that can be performed to identify any birth defects. They are generally accurate, but sometimes a prenatal test can wrongly indicate a defect or miss identifying the presence of defect. Some prenatal tests include:
Maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein test
This is a screening test that measures the level of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) in a pregnant woman in the second trimester. This protein is naturally made by the fetus and the placenta, some of which crosses into the mother's bloodstream. If the level of alpha-fetoprotein is abnormally high, it can indicate that the fetus has an open neural tube defect.
An amniocentesis involves taking a sample of fluid from the sac that surrounds the growing fetus to identify the level of alpha-fetoprotein. This is a more accurate test to identify if spina bifida is present, but it cannot determine the severity of the condition. There also is a small risk of complications with this procedure, including damage to the growing fetus or miscarriage.
If blood tests indicate high levels of alpha-fetoprotein, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound to confirm the presence of spina bifida. This test can create an accurate image of the baby growing inside you and can identify signs of spina bifida.
Types of treatment
While there is no specific cure for spina bifida, there are some options available to treat and manage the condition. Generally the mildest form of spina bifida doesn't require any treatment. Some treatment options for moderate and severe conditions include:
Surgery can be performed on individuals with meningocele, the moderate form of spina bifida, to insert the meninges back inside the vertebrae. Individuals with myelomeningocele, the severe form of spina bifida, generally will require surgery at birth to cover the exposed spinal cord and meninges with the newborn's muscle or skin. This operation can help prevent life-threatening infections. Surgery of a baby's spinal cord can also be performed before the baby is born. However, this procedure can be dangerous to the mother and increases the risk of premature birth.
A complication called hydrocephalus, which causes an accumulation of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, can be treated with a shunt. This involves the insertion of a hollow tube into the ventricles of the brain to drain the excess fluid.
Ongoing care after birth
As a person with spina bifida grows and develops, surgical procedures may be required on legs and feet to help increase mobility. Wheelchairs, walking aids and braces can also help with mobility. Bladder surgery, the use of incontinence pads or a catheter may be required to manage urinary incontinence.
Some complications associated with spina bifida include:
- Hydrocephalus, the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain;
- Mobility problems including paralysis or walking difficulties;
- Meningitis, an infection of the surrounding brain tissue, and;
- Arnold-Chiari malformation, an abnormality that affects eye movement, balance, breathing and swallowing.
Depending on the severity of spina bifida, the prognosis can vary. In most cases of mild spina bifida, there are no symptoms and an individual can live a normal life. In more moderate cases, surgery can be performed soon after birth to limit the effects of spina bifida. In some severe cases of spina bifida, debilitating complications, including paralysis, can occur.
To help prevent spina bifida, adequate amounts of folate can be taken during pregnancy. Folate is a B-group vitamin that has been proven to reduce the instances of spina bifida. Foods that are high in folate include bananas, oranges, spinach, asparagus and legumes. A tablet form of folate is available and is usually recommended in addition to the dietary intake. Taking 0.5 mg of folic acid daily for a month before and three months after conception can reduce the risk of spina bifida.
If there is a family history of cleft lip, spinal problems or if you are taking epilepsy medication your doctor will most likely prescribe a higher dose of folate to lower your risk.
- Blencowe Hannah Simon Cousens Bernadette Modell and Joy Lawn. Folic Acid to Reduce Neonatal Mortality from Neural Tube Disorders. International Journal of Epidemiology 39 no. suppl 1 (April 1 2010): i110i121. doi:10.1093/ije/dyq028.
- Spina Bifida. Better Health Channel. Accessed August 6 2014. link here
- Spina Bifida Fact Sheet: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed August 6 2014. link here
- Spina Bifida Foundation Victoria?» Spina Bifida: The Facts. Accessed August 6 2014. link here
- Spina Bifida Symptoms - Diseases and Conditions - Mayo Clinic. Accessed August 6 2014. link here
- What Is Spina Bifida? - Spina Bifida Association. Accessed August 6 2014. link here
FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida is a birth defect involving the spine, spinal cord and the protective covering of the spinal cord called the meninges. Spina bifida occurs when the cells that form the neural tube don't 'zip' up correctly, leaving part of the spinal cord or meninges …
What are the symptoms of spina bifida?
Depending on the spinal location, type and severity of spina bifida, various signs and symptoms may be present. These may include: reduced sensation or a degree of paralysis in the lower part of the body; various degrees of urinary or bowel …
What causes spina bifida?
Spina bifida is caused by abnormal folding of cells during the early stages of an embryo's development (embryogenesis). The exact reason why this occurs is unknown, but genetic and nutritional factors, particularly lack of folate during early pregnancy, appear to …
Who develops spina bifida?
Spina bifida is a condition that develops in a growing fetus during pregnancy. It can affect both girls and boys. Expectant mothers who are at an increased risk of having a baby with spina bifida include those that have: family history of spina bifida; a previous …
How is spina bifida diagnosed?
If you are pregnant, there are prenatal tests that can be performed to identify any birth defects, such as spina bifida. Blood tests of the mother can identify abnormally high levels of alpha-fetoprotein, which is indicative of spina bifida. Alpha-fetoprotein …
How is spina bifida treated?
In the mildest cases of spina bifida, no treatment is required. For more severe cases, surgery to reinsert or cover the protruding meninges and spinal cord can be performed. In some cases, a shunt (hollow tube) may also be required to drain excess fluid from …
Can spina bifida be cured?
Spina bifida cannot be cured. The prognosis varies with the severity of spina bifida. In most cases of mild spina bifida, there are no symptoms and an individual can go on to live their life without any restrictions. In more moderate cases, surgery can be …
Can spina bifida be prevented?
To help prevent spina bifida, take adequate amounts of folate during pregnancy, by eating foods high in folate and/or by taking folate tablets. 0.5 mg of folic acid daily for a month before and three months after conception can reduce the risk of spina …
Are there different types of spina bifida?
Depending on the location along the spine and the amount of protrusion of meninges and spinal cord, different types of spina bifida are formed. The mildest form of spina bifida is known as occulta. People with occulta have part of the vertebrae …