Spina Bifida: Cause, Symptoms, and Treatments

Spina Bifida: Cause, Symptoms, and Treatments

A diagnosis of spina bifida can be devastating. When the spine or spinal cord is not developed properly during a fetus’s development the results can include defects in the spine or spinal cord. As you can imagine, as a parent this diagnosis would be difficult to hear. This disorder can be caused by a genetic defect, family history, folic acid deficiency, and even medications taken during pregnancy. By understanding what this disorder presents can prepare you for the unknowns that lay ahead. We here at HPFY can give you some of the information you need to succeed.

Spina Bifida

What is Spina Bifida?

The birth defect spina bifida is when the neural tube of a fetus does not develop properly. It is this structure that eventually should develop into the brain, spinal cord and the tissues that enclose them during normal development. It forms early in pregnancy and should be enclosed roughly around the 28th day after conception. The type of defect or size can determine the severity of the birth defect. Ranging from mild to severe, spina bifida may be treated with surgery, but results are not always completely successful. There are three types of spina bifida that include:

Spina Bifida Occulta

The mildest and most common form of spina bifida results in a gap in the bones of the spine. Many times, this can go undiagnosed until imaging reveals the diagnosis during an unrelated medical issue.


A.K.A. open spina bifida, this is the most severe type of spina bifida. This occurs when the spinal canal is open along several vertebrae and the spinal nerves push through this opening forming a sac on the infants back. Dangerous infections, paralysis risk, and bladder/bowel dysfunction can all be caused by this type of spina bifida.


This is a very rare form of spina bifida that is a cystic sac that has a wall formed by spinal meninges which contains cerebrospinal fluid. A small, moist system protrudes through the gap in the spine where the neural tube has not closed. Often this can be treated with surgery 12-48 hours after birth.

The symptoms of spina bifida vary depending upon the type of defect at hand. For instance, spina bifida occulta may not show any symptoms due to spinal nerves not being involved. An abnormal patch of hair or dimple/birthmark above the spinal defect can be an indicator. A diagnosis can be confirmed using an MRI or ultrasound of the newborn.                     

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Spina Bifida Treatments

No two spina bifida patients are alike. Since there is no cure for spina bifida, treatments depend upon the severity and location in each case. Any treatment will be derived by your doctor or neurologist and should be adhered to strictly. Surgery can be a treatment for the more serious types of spina bifida and often the surgery can be done before birth prior to the 26th week of pregnancy. Some research suggests that fetal surgery can reduce disabilities and lessen the need for walking aids, such as braces or crutches. Some other treatment options include:

  • Mobility Aids: Depending on severity and complications, spina bifida patients may need to use crutches, walkers, strollers, or even wheelchairs in order to improve mobility.
  • Bowel/Bladder Management: Since spina bifida patients may not have control over their bladder/bowels, managing incontinence can be important. Suppositories and enemas can be used to create a bowel program and diapers, bed pads, and moisture barrier lotions that can help protect sensitive skin and furniture for bladder management.
  • Hydrocephalus Surgery: For babies that develop myelomeningocele a ventricular shunt needs to be surgically installed. This removes fluid from the brain and drains it into the abdomen.
  • Other Treatment Methods: Children born with spina bifida may require specialized equipment such as commode chairs, bath/shower chairs, or standing frames that can help treat the effects of spina bifida.
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As children with spina bifida age, the need for continuing or ongoing care still exists. The need for medications or physical therapy, urologic care, and even neurosurgery maybe needs that children with spina bifida require.

Living with spina bifida is not easy and requires an entire village of help. Parents and caregivers are vitally important in order to manage a child’s condition and to provide critical emotional support. Support groups are a wonderful source of information and help. No matter what the issue is, most spina bifida complications can be managed or treated in order to improve the quality of life of spina bifida patients.


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