What is spina bifida?

Spina Bifida

Spina bifida in children: Overview

Spina bifida is a condition that begins in early pregnancy where part of the baby's spine does not form completely. That can leave part of the spinal cord uncovered. In minor cases, the spinal cord stays right where it should, and the child is fine. But when the spinal cord bulges outside of the body, it can be damaged. That makes it hard for the brain to send messages to the lower parts of the body. This can cause problems, commonly with walking and bladder control. Some babies with spina bifida also have too much fluid around their brains. This can be treated with surgery.

Spina bifida affects each child differently. Early surgery can reduce nerve damage for some children. Your doctor may use medicine to stop or prevent infection. You may start working with a physical therapist in your baby's first few weeks to learn exercises to make the muscles stronger. As your child grows, you and your doctor will develop a treatment plan to help your child be active. Braces, wheelchairs, and other devices help many children with spina bifida to be active and independent.

Spina bifida

Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the bones of the spine (vertebrae) don't form properly around the spinal cord. If it's severe, part of the spinal cord or spinal nerves may be exposed. This can cause nerve damage and lead to serious problems, so surgery may be needed soon after birth. But in most cases, the condition is mild and hidden, and it doesn't cause problems.

Spina bifida develops early in pregnancy, often before you know you're pregnant. You can reduce your chance of having a baby with spina bifida by eating a healthy diet and taking folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of spina bifida?

Your child's symptoms will depend on how severe the defect is. Most children with the mild form of spina bifida don't have any problems from it.

In many cases, children with meningocele don't have any symptoms.

Children with the most severe form of spina bifida often have spine and brain issues that cause serious problems. They may have:

  • Little or no feeling in their legs, feet, or arms, so they may not be able to move those parts of the body.
  • Bladder or bowel problems, such as leaking urine or having a hard time passing stools.
  • Fluid buildup in the brain (hydrocephalus). Even when it is treated, this may cause seizures, learning problems, or vision problems.
  • A curve in their spine, such as scoliosis.

Myelomeningocele (A Severe Form of Spina Bifida)

Myelomeningocele (a form of spina bifida)

Myelomeningocele is a rare and severe form of spina bifida in which part of the spinal nerves or spinal cord is exposed on the outside of the skin. This type of spina bifida can lead to health problems, physical disability, and learning problems. Treatment usually includes surgery, braces or other corrective devices, physical therapy, and sometimes extra help in school.

How is spina bifida treated?

Most children with mild spina bifida don't need treatment. Surgery may be done for severe cases. If a child has hydrocephalus, a tube (shunt) can help drain excess fluid from the brain. Therapists can teach exercises and activities. Some children may need a brace, a wheelchair, or help with bladder and bowel control.

How can you help prevent spina bifida?

Having healthy habits before and during pregnancy can help prevent spina bifida.

  • Get plenty of folic acid each day, both before you get pregnant and during pregnancy. All foods made from grains and sold in the United States have folic acid added. Foods rich in folic acid include fortified breakfast cereals, breads, tortillas, and rice. Your doctor may recommend that you also take a daily vitamin with folic acid or a folic acid supplement.
  • If you take medicine for seizures or acne, talk with your doctor before you get pregnant. Some of these medicines can cause birth defects.
  • Avoid alcohol while you are pregnant. Any amount of alcohol may affect your baby's health. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting or cutting back.
  • Don't get too hot in the first weeks of pregnancy. For example, avoid using a sauna or hot tub. Or talk to your doctor before using them. And treat a high fever right away. High body temperature could raise your baby's risk for spina bifida.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. Talk with your doctor about what weight is healthiest for you.
  • If you have diabetes, it's important to talk to your doctor. You may need to fine-tune your diabetes care before you get pregnant to make sure that both you and your baby stay healthy.

How is spina bifida diagnosed?

During pregnancy, you can have a blood test (quad screen) and an ultrasound of the developing baby. These tests check for signs of spina bifida and other problems. If test results suggest a birth defect, you can choose to have an amniocentesis. This test helps confirm if the baby has spina bifida.

After birth, a doctor can usually tell if a baby has spina bifida by how the baby's back looks. If spina bifida is suspected, the doctor may do an X-ray, an MRI, or a CT scan to see if the defect is mild or severe.

How can you care for your child who has spina bifida?

There's a lot you can do to help your child. Learn how to do range-of-motion exercises that can help your child gain strength and control movements. Prevent skin infections by looking for cuts, blisters, and sore spots. Help your child avoid contact with latex. Children with spina bifida often are allergic to latex.

What causes spina bifida?

The exact cause of this birth defect isn't known. Experts think that genes and the environment are involved. For example, someone who's had one child with spina bifida is more likely to have another child with the disease. Having low levels of folic acid (folate) in your blood, obesity, or diabetes also makes a person more likely to have a child with spina bifida.

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects the spine. It can be mild or severe. The mild, most common form often doesn't need treatment. A more severe form causes fluid to leak from the spine. In the most rare and severe form, nerves push out of the spinal canal and are often damaged.

Spina bifida in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has a seizure.
  • Your child is extremely sleepy or hard to wake up.
  • Your child has symptoms of a severe allergic reaction. These may include:
    • Sudden raised, red areas (hives) all over the body.
    • Swelling of the throat, mouth, lips, or tongue.
    • Trouble breathing.
    • Passing out (losing consciousness). Or your child may feel very lightheaded or suddenly feel weak, confused, or restless.
    • Severe belly pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child has a fever with a stiff neck or a severe headache.
  • Your child is vomiting.
  • Your child has itchy eyes, is sneezing or coughing, or has a rash.
  • Your child has mild belly pain or nausea.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if your child has any problems.

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