Spina Bifida in Children

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida — a term that means “split spine” — is a condition that occurs when the brain, spinal cord or the membranes that cover them (meninges) do not completely develop. It is the most common neural tube defect in the U.S.

What are the symptoms of spina bifida?

The symptoms of spina bifida vary widely depending on the type of spina bifida a child has.

Many children with spina bifida don’t have any symptoms or only have mild symptoms. These may include:

  • a small clump of hair or a dimple or birthmark on the spine
  • chronic constipation with no other cause
  • chronic urinary or bowel incontinence with no other cause
  • chronic urinary tract infections
  • leg or back pain
  • limping
  • toe walking
  • scoliosis

Other children have symptoms that are noticeable at birth, such as an opening in the spine or a sac that protrudes from the spine.

What are the causes of spina bifida?

The cause of spina bifida remains unknown. It is associated with genetic, nutritional and environmental factors. Research studies indicate that a key factor may be a lack of folic acid — a common B vitamin — in a pregnant woman’s diet. This is one reason why a daily multi-vitamin that contains folic acid is recommended for all women of child-bearing age.

More than 90 percent of cases occur without a prior family history. However, if one parent has spina bifida, there’s a 1 in 25 (4 percent) chance of passing spina bifida to your baby. If you already have a child with spina bifida, there’s a 1 in 25 (4 percent) chance of having another baby with the condition. If a previous child or family member has a neural tube defect, speak with your doctor about taking a daily folic acid supplement.

What are the different types of spina bifida?

There are four major types of spina bifida:

  • Spina bifida occulta (hidden). This is mildest and most common form of the condition. It occurs when one or more of the bones in the spine (vertebrae) don’t properly form. As many as 10 to 20 percent of all people have this type of spina bifida. Although it rarely causes symptoms or disability, a small percentage of people do have symptoms. In some cases, these symptoms can be severe.
  • Closed neural tube defect. This is a type of spina bifida in which there are malformations of fat, bone or membranes on the spinal cord. Most children with this type of spina bifida have few or no symptoms. In some cases, it can cause difficulty walking or urinary and bowel dysfunction.
  • Meningocele. This is the least common type of spina bifida. It occurs when the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord protrude through an opening in the spinal column. Some children with meningocele have only minor symptoms, while others have more serious problems with walking and bladder and bowel function.
  • Myelomeningocele. This is the most severe form of spina bifida. It occurs when the backbone and spinal cord fail to close and the spinal cord does not develop normally. Children with this type are often fully or partially paralyzed, have difficulty with bladder and bowel control, have orthopedic problems and may have inguinal drainage of cerebrospinal fluid (hydrocephalus). Cognitive challenges are also common.
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What are the associated medical conditions found with spina bifida?

The complications of spina bifida vary widely, depending on the type and its severity.

Associated health problems can include: