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Spina Bifida

What Is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida (SPY-nuh BIF-ih-duh) is when a baby's backbone (spine) does not form normally before birth.

The condition can be mild or severe. Treatments can help babies born with spina bifida.

What Are the Types of Spina Bifida?

All types of spina bifida cause an opening in the spine's bones:

  • Spina bifida occulta: This is a gap in the bones in the spine but the spinal cord and meninges do not push through it. They are in their normal place inside the spinal canal, and there's no opening on the baby's back.
  • Meningocele: This is when a sac that contains spinal fluid pushes through the gap in the spine. The spinal cord is in its normal place in the spinal canal. The skin over the meningocele often is open.
  • Myelomeningocele: This is when a sac that contains the meninges, spinal fluid, and part of the spinal cord pushes through the gap in the spine and the skin. You can see it on the baby's back.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Spina Bifida?

Symptoms depend on what kind of spina bifida a baby has and where it is on the spine. Some babies with spina bifida have few or no problems. But sometimes the condition can cause serious problems, including weakness, loss of bladder control, or paralysis.

What Causes Spina Bifida?

All types of spina bifida happen in the first month of pregnancy. At first, a fetus' spinal cord is flat. It then closes into a tube called a neural tube. If this tube does not fully close, the baby is born with spina bifida.

It’s not clear why some babies get spina bifida. The condition can happen if the mother doesn’t get enough of the vitamin folic acid early in their pregnancy, or:

  • took some types of seizure medicines during pregnancy
  • already has had a baby with spina bifida
  • has diabetes

How Is Spina Bifida Diagnosed?

During pregnancy, a blood test called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) can tell if a woman has a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida. A prenatal ultrasound or fetal MRI can show whether a baby has it.

If it's not diagnosed during pregnancy, sometimes the condition is seen right away when the baby is born.

Spina bifida occulta, though, usually doesn't cause symptoms. Often, it's found when doctors do an X-ray or other imaging study of the spine for another reason. Sometimes doctors find spina bifida by doing an ultrasound after they notice a dimple, patch of hair, or red patch at the base of a baby's spine.

How Is Spina Bifida Treated?

Treatment for spina bifida depends on how severe it is. Many babies with spina bifida occulta do not need any treatment.

Babies with meningocele or myelomeningocele will need care from a team that can include a neurosurgeon, urologist, orthopedic surgeon, physical therapistoccupational therapist, and social worker.

Sometimes, doctors can treat spina bifida with surgery while the baby is still in the womb.

How Can Parents Help?

A child whose spina bifida is severe may need medical care for life. This can feel overwhelming for any family. But you're not alone, and many resources are available to help you and your family. Talk to anyone on the care team about ways to find support. You also can find more information online at:

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date Reviewed: Jan 10, 2022

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