Spina Bifida is a common defect in unborn babies wherein during the development of the foetus in the womb, the neural tube that forms the brain and the spinal cord of a baby does not close all the way resulting in significant deformation of the backbone. The bone that protects the spine doesn't form completely causing mild to chronic physical and mental health issues. The neural tube is nothing but the structure of a group of cells in a developing embryo that eventually becomes the baby’s brain, spinal cord and all the tissues that enclose them. The word Spina Bifida is derived from Latin which literally implies split spine. Ideally, the closure should occur by the 28th day of conception, but in babies with spina bifida, a portion of the neural tube ceases to develop the way it should, thus causing problems in the spinal cord. Depending on the type of defect, size, location, and complications, it can be mild or severe. Early treatment of spina bifida involves surgery although such treatment doesn't always completely resolve the problem.
Spina Bifida

Three Kinds Of Spina Bifida

Spina Bifida Occulta

The most common type, spina bifida occulta results in a tiny gap in the bones of the spine. Many people who have spina bifida occulta do not even know about it unless the condition is discovered by some diagnostic test. Typically, there are no symptoms as the spinal nerves aren't involved other than a cluster of hair or a birthmark.

Meningocele Spina Bifida

This type is characterized by a spinal fluid sac bulging through an opening in the spine. While no nerves are affected and the spinal cord is not in the fluid sac, meningocele spina bifida may cause problems with bladder and bowel function.

Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida

Also known as open spina bifida, myelomeningocele is the most severe type whereby the spinal canal remains open along several vertebrae in the lower or middle back. The spinal nerves push through this opening at birth forming a sac on the back, exposing tissues and nerves sometimes covered by the skin. This makes the baby prone to life-threatening infections and may also cause paralysis and bladder and bowel dysfunction.

What Causes Spina Bifida?

A combination of genetics and environmental factors is thought to be the main cause. It has been observed that females are affected by this deformity more often than males. Although doctors and researchers don't know for sure why spina bifida occurs, they have identified the following potential causes:

Folate Deficiency: Folate, a natural form of vitamin B-9, is crucial to the development of a healthy baby. Folate deficiency increases the risk of all kinds of neural tube defects.

Family History: Couples who have had one child with a neural tube defect have a higher chance of having another baby with the same defect. Women who were born with a neural tube defect also stand a greater chance of giving birth to a child with spina bifida than someone without a neural tube defect.

Diabetes: Women who do not have well-controlled blood sugar have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida.

Obesity: Obesity is associated with an increased risk of many neural tube birth defects, one of them being Spina Bifida.

Increased Body Temperature. It has been noted that an increased body temperature or hyperthermia which could be due to fever or otherwise in the early pregnancy may increase the risk of spina bifida.


During pregnancy, this ailment may be detected in the foetus through a blood test at the 16th to 18th week of pregnancy. The test is done to check the amount of alpha-fetoprotein in the blood. A higher amount implies a possibility of spina bifida. The spine deformity may also be spotted through a sonogram. Another test called amniocentesis in which fluid from the womb is removed through a tube to test for protein levels is also done

Also Read: Amniocentesis: Procedure, Risks And What To Expect In The Results

Complications Of Spina Bifida

This list of possible complications is serious but not all children with spina bifida get affected by the following complications.

  • The nerves that control the leg muscles do not work properly below the area of the spina bifida defect. This can cause muscle weakness of the legs, mobility problems and sometimes paralysis
  • Children can have a variety of problems in the legs and spine because of weak muscles in the legs and back. Possible problems include orthopaedic issues, curved spine also called scoliosis and joint deformities
  • When children have myelomeningocele, the nerves that supply the bladder and bowels usually don't work properly since the bowel and bladder come from the lowest level of the spinal cord
  • Children with spina bifida specifically myelomeningocele, may have obstructive sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. Sleep-disordered breathing may affect the overall health and quality of life
  • Kids with spina bifida are also prone to frequent wounds on their feet, legs, back and buttocks. These sores can turn into deep wounds or foot infections that are hard to treat.
  • When suffering from spina bifida, kids have a higher risk of an allergic reaction to natural rubber or latex products. Besides sneezing, itching, and a runny nose, sometimes it can also cause anaphylaxis, a condition in which swelling of the airways can make breathing difficult

Treatment and Prevention

Treatment options for spina bifida are limited and surgery is the only solution. While the opening can be repaired through surgery, the nerve damage cannot be resolved and that may cause permanent disability. The best and most critical way to prevent this problem is to get abundant folic acid in your system by the early weeks of pregnancy. Folic acid, taken in supplement form starting at least one month before conception and continuing through the first trimester of pregnancy, greatly reduces the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects. Adult women who are planning a pregnancy are advised to take high amounts of folic acid every day. A healthy diet, including foods rich in folate is also recommended by health practitioners to get all essential nutrients in the body.