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Spina Bifida - Topic Overview

What is 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 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 reason.
  • 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 camera.gif (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.
  • A curve in their spine, such as scoliosis.

How is spina bifida diagnosed?

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.

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