Common Birth Defects

Spina Bifida

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is the most common of a group of birth defects called neural tube defects. The neural tube is the part of the embryo that eventually develops into the brain and spinal cord. The neural tube forms early in pregnancy, by the 28th day after conception. When something goes wrong in this process and the neural tube does not close properly, the spinal cord and sometimes the vertebrae do not develop normally. The backbone and spinal cord can be affected.

How common is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is one of the most common severe birth defects, affecting approximately one in 2,000 babies. Spina bifida is usually an isolated birth defect. Almost all babies born with spina bifida and other neural tube defects are born to parents with no family history of these problems. Still, scientists to believe there are both genetic and environmental factors at work. Spina bifida occurs more frequently among Hispanics and whites of European descent; it is less common among African-Americans and Asians. Women with certain chronic health conditions, including diabetes and seizure disorders, have an increased risk of having a baby with spina bifida.

How is the child affected by spina bifida?

There are three forms of spina bifida, each producing different symptoms. The first is occulta — this form is usually without symptoms. It presents as a small gap in the vertebrae, but the spinal cord and nerves are normal and these children generally have no related problems. The second form is meningocele. This is the rarest form and shows as a cyst or a lump poking through the open part of the spine. It can be corrected with surgery. The final form is myelomeningocele. This is the most severe form. A cyst may affect the spinal canal, spinal cord, and nerve roots. Or there may be no cyst, just an exposed section of the spinal cord. There is a high risk of infection, and even after surgery to close the open section, leg paralysis and bladder and bowel control problems remain. Many children will require a wheelchair.

What are the treatments for spina bifida?

Depending on the type of spina bifida in question, treatments range from none to multiple surgeries. A baby with the most severe form of spina bifida will usually require surgery within 48 hours of birth. Soon after surgery, physical therapy is recommended. There are prenatal approaches to the birth defect as well. Studies show that up to 70 percent of neural tube defects, including spina bifida, could be prevented if pregnant women consumed adequate amounts of folic acid, especially in the earliest stages of pregnancy. Folic acid is found in many foods such as orange juice and beans and is also available in most multivitamins. Spina bifida can often be detected through prenatal testing, such as blood tests, ultrasound, and amniocentesis. Prenatal surgery to repair spina bifida birth defects is in the experimental phase.