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Home > Health Library > Spina Bifida
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 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.
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:
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 X-ray, an MRI, or a CT scan to see if the defect is mild or severe.
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 brain.
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:
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.
Before and during pregnancy, a woman can help prevent spina bifida in her child.
Other Works Consulted
Adzick NS, et al. (2011). A randomized trial of prenatal versus postnatal repair of myelomeningocele. New England Journal of Medicine. Published online February 9, 2011 (doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1014379).
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2003, reaffirmed 2011). Neural tube defects. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 44. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 102(1): 203–210.
Ghatan S (2006). Myelomeningocele. In FD Burg et al., eds., Current Pediatric Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 377–380. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Liptak GS (2013). Neural tube defects. In ML Batshaw et al., eds., Children with Disabilities, 7th ed., pp. 451–472. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
Liptak GS, Dosa NP (2010). Myelomeningocele. Pediatrics in Review, 30(31): 443–450.
Sandler AD (2010). Children with spina bifida: Key clinical issues. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 57(4): 879–892.
Sawin KJ, Thompson NM (2009). The experience of finding an effective bowel management program for children with spina bifida: The parent's perspective. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 24(4): 280–291.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Folic acid to prevent neural tube defects. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsnrfol.htm.
Current as of: August 22, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: John Pope, MD, MPH - PediatricsKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineLouis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Current as of: August 22, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope, MD, MPH - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
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