What is Spina Bifida

Birth defects are always a concern to physicians and to the parents, spina bifida is a serious birth defect that involves the tissue surrounding the spinal cord. This is a defect that is included in the group of birth defects called neural tube defects.

The neural tube is the embryonic structure that develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord and also the tissues surrounding the cord. Babies who have spina bifida have a portion of the neural tube that failed to develop or to close properly which caused the defect.

Spina bifida is one of the more common birth defects occuring in the United States. It is necessary to treat spina bifida, usually with surgery. Surgery may not completely correct the defect, especially if severe.


Spina bifida occulta – this form of spina bifida is the mildest form and results in a small separation or gap in one or more of the spinal vertebrae. Children with spina bifida occulta may not even show any symptoms and may not even receive a diagnosis until the problem is discovered by accident on x-ray taken for unrelated reason. Sometimes there is a small physical abnormality (tuft of hair, small dimple or collection of fat above the spinal defect).


This is a rare form of spina bifida and involves the protective membranes (meninges) of the spinal cord. These meninges push out through the vertebrae and then the spinal cord develops normally.


The membranes are removed by surgery. There is little or no damage to the nerve pathways.

Myelomeningocele (open spina bifida):

This is the most severe form of spina bifida. The spinal cord is usually left open along several vertebrae with both membrane and spinal cord protruding at birth. The protruding membrane and spinal cord usually form a sac on the baby’s back. Sometimes skin covers this sac.

Sometimes tissues and nerves are exposed, making the baby susceptible to life-threatening infections. This type of spina bifida usually entails paralysis or loss of movement, bladder problems, seizures and other medical complications.


Spina bifida appears to be caused by a combination of both environmental and genetic factors such as a history of family neural tube defects, perhaps a folic acid deficicency in the mother during pregnancy, medical conditions such as diabetes and even obesity in the mom-to-be.


Those at risk for having a baby with spina bifida are those of Hispanic background, and caucacians of Northern European background.

Female babies are more at risk for spina bifida.

Couples who have had one spina bifida baby are at higher risk for having another baby with spina bifida. The risk increases with every child born to the couple with spina bifida for every subsequent pregnancy.

Folic acid deficiency in the mother increases the risk for the fetus.

Anti-seizure medications such as valproic acid (Depakene) possibly cause neural tube defects when taken during pregnancy because they can interfere with the mother’s ability to use folic acid.

Diabetes can cause spina bifida especially if the mother’s blood sugar level is high in early pregnancy.

Obesity in pre-pregnancy can be linked to neural tube birth defects perhaps due to poor eating habits that lead to nutritional deficiency.

An elevated body temperature in the early months of pregnancy of about 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal body temperature due to fever from illness or use of saunas and hot tubs have been associated with a higher than normal risk of spina bifida.