Spina Bifida is the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the United States.
Spina Bifida literally means “split spine.”
Spina Bifida happens when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way. Every day, about 8 babies born in the United States have Spina Bifida or a similar birth defect of the brain and spine.
No one knows for sure the exact cause of spina bifida but have their ideas. Scientists believe that genetic and environmental factors act together to cause the condition.
Although doctors and researchers don’t know for sure why spina bifida occurs, they have identified a few risk factors:
- Race. Spina bifida is more common among whites and Hispanics.
- Sex. Girls are affected more often.
- Family history of neural tube defects. Couples who’ve had one child with a neural tube defect have a slightly higher chance of having another baby with the same defect. That risk increases if two previous children have been affected by the condition.
- In addition, a woman who was born with a neural tube defect, or who has a close relative with one, has a greater chance of giving birth to a child with spina bifida. However, most babies with spina bifida are born to parents with no known family history of the condition.
- Folate deficiency. Folate (vitamin B-9) is important to the healthy development of a baby. Folate is the natural form of vitamin B-9. The synthetic form, found in supplements and fortified foods, is called folic acid. A folate deficiency increases the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
- Some medications. Anti-seizure medications, such as valproic acid (Depakene), seem to cause neural tube defects when taken during pregnancy, perhaps because they interfere with the body’s ability to use folate and folic acid.
- Diabetes. Women with diabetes who don’t control their blood sugar well have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida.
- Obesity. Pre-pregnancy obesity is associated with an increased risk of neural tube birth defects, including spina bifida.
- Increased body temperature. Some evidence suggests that increased body temperature (hyperthermia) in the early weeks of pregnancy may increase the risk of spina bifida. Elevating your core body temperature, due to fever or the use of saunas or hot tubs, has been associated with increased risk of spina bifida.
- If you have known risk factors for spina bifida, talk with your doctor to determine if you need a larger dose or prescription dose of folic acid, even before a pregnancy begins.
There are different types of Spina Bifida:
Occult Spinal Dysraphism (OSD) Infants with this have a dimple in their lower back. Because most babies with dimples do not have OSD, a doctor has to check using special tools and tests to be sure. Other signs are red marks, hyperpigmented patches on the back, tufts of hair or small lumps. In OSD, the spinal cord may not grow the right way and can cause serious problems as a child grows up. Infants who might have OSD should be seen by a doctor, who will recommend tests.
Spina Bifida Occulta It is often called “hidden Spina Bifida” because about 15 % of healthy people have it and do not know it. Spina Bifida Occulta usually does not cause harm, and has no visible signs. The spinal cord and nerves are usually fine. Visible indications of spina bifida occulta can sometimes be seen on the newborn’s skin above the spinal defect, including:
- An abnormal tuft of hair
- A collection of fat
- A small dimple or birthmarkMeningocele A meningocele causes part of the spinal cord to come through the spine like a sac that is pushed out. Nerve fluid is in the sac, and there is usually no nerve damage. Individuals with this condition may have minor disabilities.
- Many people who have spina bifida occulta don’t even know it, unless the condition is discovered during an X-ray or other imaging test done for unrelated reasons. People find out they have it after having an X-ray of their back. It is considered an incidental finding because the X-Ray is normally done for other reasons. However, in a small group of people with SBO, pain and neurological symptoms may occur. Tethered cord can be an insidious complication that requires investigation by a neurosurgeon.
Myelomeningocele (Meningomyelocele), also called Spina Bifida Cystica This is the most severe form of Spina Bifida. It happens when parts of the spinal cord and nerves come through the open part of the spine. It causes nerve damage and other disabilities. 70 to 90% of children with this condition also have too much fluid on their brains. This happens because fluid that protects the brain and spinal cord is unable to drain like it should. The fluid builds up, causing pressure and swelling. Without treatment, a person’s head grows too big, and may have brain damage. Children who do not have Spina Bifida can also have this problem, so parents need to check with a doctor. Usually, however, tissues and nerves are exposed, making the baby prone to life-threatening infections.
Neurological impairment is common, including:
- Muscle weakness of the legs, sometimes involving paralysis
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Seizures, especially if the child requires a shunt
- Orthopedic problems — such as deformed feet, uneven hips and a curved spine (scoliosis)Treatment for spina bifida depends on the severity of the condition.
- Spina Bifida Treatment
- Most people with spina bifida occulta require no treatment at all.
- Children with meningocele typically require surgical removal of the cyst and survive with little, if any, disability.
- Children with myelomeningocele, however, require complex and often lifelong treatment and assistance. Almost all of them survive with appropriate treatment starting soon after birth. Their quality of life depends at least partially on the speed, efficiency, and comprehensiveness with which that treatment is provided.
- A child born with myelomeningocele requires specialty care.
- The child should be transferred immediately to a center where newborn surgery can be performed.
- Treatment with antibiotics is started as soon as the myelomeningocele is recognized; this prevents infection of the spinal cord, which can be fatal.
The operation involves closing the opening in the spinal cord and covering the cord with muscles and skin taken from either side of the back. The most common complications are tethered spinal cord and hydrocephalus, which can have very severe consequences.