Spina Bifida is a birth defect called a neural tube defect (a disorder involving incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or their protective coverings). It is caused by the failure of the fetus’s spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. The spinal opening can be surgically repaired, but the nerve damage is permanent, and may result in varying degrees of paralysis of the lower limbs, learning disabilities, bowel and bladder complications, and hydrocephalus. Spina Bifida is one of the most common birth defects in the United States.
The three most common types of Spina Bifida are:
Myelomeningocele– (the most severe form) The spinal canal remains open along several vertebrae in the lower or middle back. Because of this opening, both the membranes and the spinal cord protrude, forming a sac on the baby’s back. In some cases, skin covers the sac. Usually, however, tissues and nerves are exposed, making the baby prone to life-threatening infections.
Meningocele– The spinal cord and its protective covering protrude from an opening in the spine. The spinal cord develops normally, these membranes can be removed by surgery with little or no damage to nerve pathways.
Occulta– (the mildest form) One or more vertebrae are malformed and covered by a layer of skin. The spinal nerves usually aren’t involved and most children will have no signs or symptoms and experience no neurological problems. An abnormal tuft of hair, a collection of fat, a small dimple or a birthmark on the skin above the spinal defect may be the only visible indication of the condition. In fact, most people who have spina bifida occulta don’t know it, unless the condition is discovered during an X-ray for unrelated reasons.
There is no cure for SB because the nerve tissue cannot be replaced or repaired. Treatment may include surgery, medication, and physiotherapy. Many children with Spina Bifida will need assistive devices such as braces, crutches, or wheelchairs. Surgery to close the newborn’s spinal opening is generally performed within 24 hours after birth to minimize the risk of infection and to preserve existing function in the spinal cord.