Spina bifida is one of the most common neural tube defects, affecting nearly 1,500 babies each year in the United States. Doctors treat spina bifida right away before or directly after birth. However, even after treatment, it can continue to cause complications throughout an individual's life. 

What is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida is a congenital condition when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly. It occurs when there is a problem with the neural tube, the structure in an embryo that eventually develops into the brain and spinal cord. Three types of spina bifida can develop.

  • Spina bifida occulta- The most common type is spina bifida occulta. Most cases of spina bifida occulta have no symptoms and often go unnoticed. It happens when there is a small gap in the vertebrae. Usually, patients learn they have spina bifida occulta when they get an imaging test for an unrelated reason. 
  • Myelomeningocele- Sometimes, several gaps along the lower and middle back causes membranes and nerves to push through and develop a sac on the baby's back. The nerves and tissue are exposed, putting the baby at risk for infection. A myelomeningocele can also cause paralysis and bladder and bowel dysfunction. 
  • Meningocele-This is a rare type of spinal bifida where a sac of spinal fluid pushes through an opening of the spine. However, unlike in myelomeningocele, the nerves are not exposed, although it may cause bladder and bowel dysfunction. 

Medical professionals are unclear about the exact cause of spina bifida, but it tends to develop in women more often than men. It's also more common in babies when the mother has diabetes or is obese. Additional risk factors include a family history of neural tube defects and folate deficiency during pregnancy. 

Living with Spina Bifida

Babies born with spina bifida occulta often have no complications or symptoms. Those with myelomeningocele and meningocele may experience minor or severe complications. Those complications depend on the size and location of the neural tube defect, if the skin covers the sac, and which nerves are exposed. 

A common complication is with a person's mobility. The nerves that control the legs are often affected, making it difficult to walk, and in some cases, the individual might develop paralysis. Children may also have bowel or bladder problems, abnormal growth, muscle contractures, or scoliosis. Some people may also create a shunt malfunction that causes headaches, vomiting, irritability, eye changes, trouble feeding, and seizures. As children get older, they have a higher risk for various complications such as urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal disorders, and depression.