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Spina Bifida – Pictures, Life Expectancy, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Updated on February 6, 2014

Spina bifida, meaning ‘cleft spine’, is a birth defect characterized by malformation of brain, spinal cord and their coverings. This is perhaps one of the most common neural tube disorders in the US. This disorder occurs when the fetus does not develop the spinal column properly. The occurrence of spina bifida ranges from 1 to 10 per 10,000 births.

Spina bifida can be mild or severe. In its mild form, walking or other daily activities are not affected. The defect is not visible and does not require treatment. However severe spina bifida can cause problems in walking, with apparent physical features like bulging skin at the back and exposed nerves.

Types of Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is of four types, namely occulta, closed neural tube defects, meningocele and myelomeningocele.

  • ‘Spinda Bifida Occulta’ is the most common form of this disorder and also the mildest one. In this, the physical deformity is hidden and covered by skin. This condition is present in 10 to 18 percent of the population. The person does not generally have any health problem as the spinal cord and the nerves are not affected.
  • Closed neural tube defects are marked by a group of defects in spinal cord such as malformation of membranes, bones and fat. In some individuals, there might not be any symptom seen while others may have partial paralysis or urinary dysfunction.
  • In Meningocele, a part of the spinal cord covering called ‘meninges’ protrudes though the vertebral opening. There is leakage of fluid out of the spine and the bulge at the back is noticeable. In most cases, there are no other symptoms.
  • The fourth type, Myelomeningocele, is the most dangerous form, with repercussions that can be even fatal. This happens when the spinal cord and nerves are laid bare through an aperture in the spine.This is a rare form of disorder but is marked with serious symptoms like motor paralysis, inability to walk, urinary and bowel dysfunction and sensory deficits.

Causes of Spina Bifida

The cause of spina bifida is still not known. The reason for the neural tube to be unhidden still remains a mystery. Experts believe that it is caused due to genes and environment. Women who are diabetic or obese have greater chances of giving birth to a baby with this disorder. Also, women who have given birth to one child with spina bifida are likely to have another child with the disorder.

It is also suspected that nutrition also plays a vital role. If the mother does not intake sufficient amount of folic acid, it increases the likelihood of the baby getting spina bifida.

Symptoms of Spina Bifida

The signs and symptoms of spina bifida vary from person to person depending on the severity of the disorder.

The fact is that this disorder is accompanied with abnormal clump of hair, dimple or anything unusual on the skin at the location of spinal malformation. In severe cases, there is a fluid-filled sac protruding from the spinal canal. In meningocele, this fluid sac might be filled with a thin layer of skin whereas in myelomeningocele, the area is not covered with the layer of skin but is usually exposed. The child may also have partial paralysis or muscle weakness in the parts below the abnormal spinal column. Other symptoms for severely affected cases include loss of sensation and inability to control spinal column. These symptoms occur because nerves originating from spinal cord and travelling to rest of the body do not function properly. Myelomeningocele in children also causes ‘hydrocephalus’ when fluid gets build up in the brain.

Other symptoms of spinal bifida are difficulty in reading and understanding mathematical concepts, organizing information and learning or expressing spoken language. Spinal bifida is often accompanied with other abnormalities like heart malformations, abnormal brain development, latex allergy, skin problems, scoliosis, obesity and few more.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is usually diagnosed at birth by observing an abnormal sac at the baby’s spine. In fact, this disorder can be diagnosed during pregnancy through a test called alpha-fetoprotein, the result of which turns out to be higher than normal, in this case. The doctor may further ask to take ultrasound and amniocentesis, if required.

Spina bifida does not require any treatment except in serious cases when surgery is needed to close the opening in back. Shunting is another popular method that removes excess fluid from the brain and controls hydrocephalus. Antibiotics can be taken to prevent infections in the spinal cord.

Spina Bifida - Life Expectancy

There are numerous myths about life expectancy. A baby born with spina bifida will not live through childhood, but if it is the mildest form with no other birth defects, the child will have 70 % chances to reach their early childhood.

Normally, life expectancy of males and females with spina bifida is the same as long as there are no complications involved. It is normal if bladder infection and pressure sores are controlled and conditions like hydrocephalus are carefully addressed. Nowadays, spina bifida is not fatal at least in the developed countries, as they have a steady supply of shunts and antibiotics available.

Statistics show that in 2001, at least 75% of the children born with the severest form of this disorder lived until early adulthood and some lived for more decades. But they required support and care to survive in their adulthood. According to medical professionals, at least 90% of the individuals with spina bifida live past 35 years of age.

Spina Bifida Pictures


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