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Learning about Spina Bifida

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What is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida, also known as open spine or cleft spine, is a neural tube defect (NTD) and one of the most common birth defects in the United States. It affects approximately 1,500 babies annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The neural tube is a ribbon of tissue that normally closes by the 28th day of gestation and eventually develops into the brain and spinal cord. Failure of the neural tube to close properly results in neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly.

What is the Cause of Spina Bifida?

The exact cause of spina bifida is not known, but researchers have determined that proper levels of folic acid (also known as folate or Vitamin B9) in a woman’s diet in the year leading up to becoming pregnant can reduce the risk of NTDs by up to 70 percent. (6)

It is recommended that women of childbearing years take 400 micrograms of folic acid (folate / Vitamin B9) per day. Women who have uncontrolled diabetes, epilepsy and obesity, and women who are on certain anti-seizure medications, may need more.

Types of Spina Bifida

A baby born with spina bifida can have the defect anywhere along the spine where the neural tube has not closed properly. The three most common forms of spina bifida are:

Myelomeningocele (my-low-ma-nin-jo-seal) is the type of spina bifida that most people are familiar with. It is the most serious form of spina bifida and affects about 1 in every 800 births. (4)

In this case, the spinal cord and meninges protrude from the child’s back. Surgery is performed one or two days after birth to place the spinal cord and meninges back inside the body and close up the defect. Babies usually experience various levels of paralysis in the lower body.

An in utero corrective surgery can also be performed between19 and 25 weeks. However, doctors do not yet know whether the benefits of prenatal surgery outweigh the risks of possibly causing pre-term labor.(6)

Meningocele is when the sac protruding through the baby’s back is full of fluid. Since there are no physical spinal structures in the sac, nerve damage is little to none, and the defect is usually surgically corrected after birth with little to no resultant paralysis.

Spina bifida occulta is sometimes called “hidden” spina bifida. It is the mildest form and often not discovered until late in childhood or in adulthood.

Spina bifida occulta presents as a gap in the spine without a protruding sac. The spinal cord and nerves are normal and there are no associated disabilities.


1) Spina Bifida. March of Dimes. Web. Sept 26, 2012.

2) Spina Bifida. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. Sept 26, 2012.

3) Myelomeningocele. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. Sept 26, 2012.

4) Spina Bifida Data and Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. Sept 26, 2012.

5) NINDS Spina Bifida Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Web. Sept 26, 2012.

6) Folic acid keeps you and your baby healthy. March of Dimes. Web. Sept 26, 2012.

Reviewed September 27, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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