What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is part of a group of birth defects called neural tube defects. Normally, the neural tube is the embryonic structure that eventually develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord and the tissues that enclose them.

The neural tube generally forms early in the pregnancy and closes by the 28th day after conception. In babies with spina bifida, a portion of the neural tube fails to develop or close properly, causing defects in the spinal cord and in the bones of the spine.

Spina bifida occurs in various forms of severity. When treatment for spina bifida is necessary, it’s done surgically, although such treatment doesn’t always completely resolve the problem.

How common is spina bifida?

Annually, about 1,500 babies are born with spina bifida. Whites and Hispanics seem to get a higher risk of spina bifida than other races women.

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of spina bifida?

There are three forms of spina bifida and each form may vary in severity.

  • Spina bifida occulta

This is considered the mildest form results in a small separation or gap in one or more of the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. Most children with this form of spina bifida have no signs or symptoms and experience no neurological problems.

  • Meningocele

In this rare form, the protective membranes around the spinal cord (meninges) push out through the opening in the vertebrae. Because the spinal cord develops normally, these membranes can be removed by surgery with little or no damage to nerve pathways.

  • Myelomeningocele

Also known as open spina bifida, myelomeningocele is the most severe form, and the form people usually mean when they use the term “spina bifida.”

Neurological impairment is common, including:

  • Muscle weakness of the legs, sometimes involving paralysis
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Seizures, especially if the child requires a shunt
  • Orthopedic problems — such as deformed feet, uneven hips and a curved spine (scoliosis)

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any questions, please consulting with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.


What causes spina bifida?

Actually, doctors aren’t sure what the causes of spina bifida are. As with many other problems, it appears to result from a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors, such as a family history of neural tube defects and folic acid deficiency.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for spina bifida?

You may have higher risks for this condition if you are experiencing these following conditions:

  • Race

Spina bifida is more common among whites and Hispanics.

  • Sex

Girls are affected more often.

  • Family history of neural tube defects

Couples who’ve owned one child with a neural tube defect have a slightly higher chance of having another baby with the same defect.

  • Folate deficiency

Folate (vitamin B-9) is important to the healthy development of a baby. A folate deficiency increases the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

  • Some medications

Anti-seizure medications seem to cause neural tube defects when taken during pregnancy, perhaps because they interfere with the body’s ability to use folate and folic acid.

  • Diabetes

Women with diabetes who don’t control their blood sugar well have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida.

  • Obesity

Pre-pregnancy obesity is associated with an increased risk of neural tube birth defects, including spina bifida.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is spina bifida diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects that your baby may experience spina bifida, he will offer prenatal screening tests to check for spina bifida and other birth defects.

Some tests then will be recommended include:

  • Blood tests

Your doctor will most likely check for spina bifida by first performing the following:

  • Maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein (MSAFP) test

A common test used to check for myelomeningocele is the maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein (MSAFP) test. To perform this test, your doctor draws a blood sample and sends it to a laboratory, where it’s tested for alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), a protein that’s produced by the baby.

  • Other blood tests

Your doctor may perform the MSAFP test with two or three other blood tests, which may detect other hormones, such as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), inhibin A and estriol.

  • Ultrasound

Many obstetricians rely on ultrasonography to screen for spina bifida. If blood tests indicate high AFP levels, your doctor will suggest an ultrasound exam to help determine why

  • Amniocentesis

If a blood test shows high levels of AFP in your blood but the ultrasound is normal, your doctor may offer amniocentesis. During amniocentesis, your doctor uses a needle to remove a sample of fluid from the amniotic sac that surrounds the baby.

How is spina bifida treated?

Some treatment option of spina bifida might include:

  • Surgery

Meningocele involves surgery to put the meninges back in place and close the opening in the vertebrae. Myelomeningocele also requires surgery, usually within 24 to 48 hours after birth.

Performing the surgery early can help reduce the risk of infection that’s associated with the exposed nerves and may also help protect the spinal cord from additional trauma.

  • Prenatal surgery

In this procedure, which takes place before the 26th week of pregnancy, surgeons expose a pregnant mother’s uterus surgically, open the uterus and repair the baby’s spinal cord.

  • Ongoing care

Treatment doesn’t end with the initial surgery, though. In babies with myelomeningocele, irreparable nerve damage has already occurred and ongoing care from a multidisciplinary team of surgeons, physicians and therapists is usually needed. Babies with myelomeningocele may need further operations for a variety of complications.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage spina bifida?

Following these tips can help you avoid and reduce the spina bifida:

  • Get folic acid first

It’s critical to have enough folic acid in your system by the early weeks of pregnancy to prevent spina bifida.

  • Planning pregnancy

If you’re actively trying to conceive, most pregnancy experts believe supplementation of at least 400 mcg of folic acid a day is the best approach for women planning pregnancy.

It’s always a good idea to eat a healthy diet, including foods rich in folate or enriched with folic acid. This vitamin is present naturally in many foods, including:

  • Beans
  • Citrus fruits and juices
  • Egg yolks
  • Dark green vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: July 3, 2017 | Last Modified: July 3, 2017

Want to live your best life?
Get the Hello Doktor Daily newsletter for health tips, wellness updates and more.