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
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 causes spina bifida?
The exact cause of this
birth defect isn't known. Experts think that
genes and the environment are part of the cause. For
example, women who have had one child with spina bifida are more likely to have
another child with the disease. Women who are obese or who have diabetes are
also more likely to have a child with spina bifida.
What are the symptoms?
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.
During pregnancy, you can have a blood test (maternal serum triple or quadruple 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
MRI, or a
CT scan to see if the defect is mild or severe.
How is it 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
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.
There are many ways you
can support your child:
Go to all scheduled doctor visits.
Help your child be active, and encourage him or her to be as independent as possible.
Encourage your child to drink
plenty of fluids and eat foods high in
fiber, such as whole grains and fruits. This helps prevent constipation.
Check your child's skin each day for cuts, bruises, and pressure sores. Children who have little or no feeling
in their legs and feet may get hurt and not know it. And that could lead to an infection.
Be sure to get your child's vision checked regularly. Children with spina bifida often have weak eye muscles.
child away from latex products if he or she has a latex allergy.
Watch for learning difficulties, and talk to your child's doctor or teacher if you have any concerns.
When your child is ready to start school, talk with teachers
and other school workers. Public schools have programs for people ages 3
through 21 with special needs.
Remember that your needs are important too. Take good care of yourself so you
can stay healthy and have the energy to enjoy your child. Make time for activities you like, even if it's just for a short while each day. And reach out to family, friends, and support groups when you need help.
How can you prevent spina bifida?
during pregnancy, a woman can help prevent spina bifida in her child.
Get plenty of folic acid
each day, both before you get pregnant and during pregnancy. All foods made from grains and sold in the United States
have folic acid added. Foods rich in folic acid include fortified breakfast cereals and breads, spinach, and oranges. Your doctor may recommend that you also take a daily vitamin with folic acid or a folic acid supplement.
If you take medicine for seizures or acne, talk with your
doctor before you get pregnant. Some of these medicines can cause birth
Don't drink alcohol while you are pregnant. Any amount of
alcohol may affect your baby's health.
Don't let your body get too
hot in the first weeks of pregnancy. For example, don't use a sauna or hot tub. And treat a high fever right away. The heat could raise your
baby's risk for spina bifida.
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National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
March of Dimes
1275 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605
The March of Dimes tries to improve the health of babies
by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and early death. March of Dimes
supports research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies'
lives. The organization's website has information on premature birth, birth
defects, birth defects testing, pregnancy, and prenatal care.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.