Spina bifida is an uncommon but often debilitating birth defect. Globally, about 1 person in 1,000 has some form of spina bifida, although rates vary from country to country. This birth defect occurs when a baby’s spinal cord is left exposed due to an incomplete closure of the neural tube; as a result, the spinal cord doesn’t receive adequate protection. This often allows for spinal cord damage, which can result in mental or physical impairment. Here’s what every person should know about this condition.
1. There are three types of spina bifida.
The most common form is the mildest. Spina bifida occulta occurs when the baby has a small spinal gap without any opening in the back. It’s rarely discovered in early childhood, and it usually doesn’t result in disabilities. Meningocele spina bifida occurs when a fluid sac protrudes from an incomplete closure in the baby’s back. This is a serious issue, but because the spinal cord isn’t within the site, it rarely results in major disabilities. Some nerves may be within the sac, however. Myelomeningocele spina bifida is what most people think of when they think of spina bifida. A fluid-filled sac protrudes from the baby’s back, and part of the spinal cord is within the sac. In many instances, this type of spina bifida can cause significant disabilities.
2. Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes spina bifida.
Nutrition seems to play a key role in the development of the birth defect. Mothers can take vitamin supplements to substantially decrease the chances of spina bifida, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Folic acid seems to be especially important. In fact, the Spina Bifida Association recommends that all women should take folic acid supplements during their childbearing years. About half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and taking a regular supplement can be the best way to prevent the condition. There’s evidence that overheating can cause some cases of spina bifida, so pregnant mothers should exercise caution and avoid hot tubs and saunas. Fevers can also increase the chances of spina bifida. Pregnant women who have elevated temperatures should consult with a healthcare professional for advice on how to treat a fever safely. Although lifestyle modifications can have an impact on whether a child is born with spina bifida, in many cases the condition is due to genetics or other factors out of a mother’s control.
3. Treatment options are limited.
Serious cases of spina bifida are treated within several days of birth. Doctors attempt to minimize damage to the baby’s nerves and spinal cord, and in many cases, they’re successful; a relatively low percentage of children with spina bifida have paralysis. Additional surgeries may be necessary as the child grows older, however. Some children also need ongoing physical therapy. For the mildest form of spina bifida, spina bifida occulta, treatment usually isn’t necessary.
4. Spina bifida is often detectable before birth.
Doctors can frequently see the more serious types of spina bifida on ultrasounds, and blood tests during the 16th to 18th weeks of pregnancy can identify the disease. Additionally, doctors may perform a test called a maternal amniocentesis to study protein levels in the womb. Once again, it’s important to note that most cases of spina bifida do not result in lifelong issues. Still, expectant mothers—and all women who are able to bear children—should understand the risks and the known causes of this potentially serious condition. Learn more by visiting the Spina Bifida Association’s website.