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What is Spina Bifida?

Posted on May 28, 2019 by Daphne Seah

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The term spina bifida may sound unfamiliar to some of us. Here is a quick overview about this condition.

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is a birth defect where the spine and/or spinal cord fail to form properly.


(Source of illustration: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention)

What are the different types of spina bifida?

There are three main types of spina bifida.

Spina Bifida Occulta

  • Mildest form of spina bifida
  • Happens when there is a small gap in one or more of the bones of the spine
  • Typically no signs or symptoms
  • Sometimes, there may be a birthmark or an abnormal tuft of hair where the spinal defect is
  • Most people with this type of spina bifida do not know they have it


  • Rare type of spina bifida
  • Spinal cord forms normally
  • Happens when a sac of spinal fluid pushes through the opening in the vertebrae
  • A range of symptoms: from few or no symptoms to bladder and bowel dysfunction


  • Most severe form of spina bifida
  • Spinal cord is exposed
  • Membranes and spinal nerves push through an opening at birth, forming a sac on the baby’s back
  • Causes partial or full paralysis 

What are the complications of spina bifida?

Depending on the type and severity of spina bifida, there is a wide range of possible complications, from minor physical problems to severe physical and mental disabilities. Below are some of the key possible complications arising from spina bifida: 

Weakness or total paralysis of the leg

  • Nerves are responsible for the movement of our limbs. Due to the effects of spina bifida, the nerves that control leg movement do not work properly, causing muscle weakness and sometimes even paralysis.

Bowel and bladder problems

  • This is caused by nerves that are responsible for controlling bowel movement. It can lead to problems such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), kidney scarring and kidney stones.


  • Hydrocephalus is excess fluid on the brain, which can damage the brain and cause further problems.
  • Some people with this symptom can develop learning difficulties such as a short attention span, difficulty solving problems and difficulty reading.

What are the causes of spina bifida?

Most doctors believe that spina bifida may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Here are a few risk factors that could lead to spina bifida:

  1. Folate deficiency
    • Folate is required for the healthy development of a fetus. A folate deficiency can increase the risk of neural tube defects.
  2. Family history of neural tube defects
    • As spina bifida is a type of neural tube defect, couples who have had a child with neural tube defects at higher risk.
    • Women who are born with neural tube defects are also likely to give birth to a child with the same defects.
  3. Certain medications
    • Certain medications such as anti-seizure interferes with the body’s ability to produce folate. Folate deficiency increases the chances of neural tube defects during pregnancy.
  4. Diabetes
    • Women with diabetes who do not control their blood sugar level well have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida.

How can we prevent spina bifida?

Folic acid (which is the man-made version of folate) can be taken as a supplement starting at least one month before conception and through the first trimester of pregnancy. Doing so can reduce the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

What are the treatments for spina bifida?

There is no cure for spina bifida. The nerve tissues that are damaged cannot be repaired. Treatment depends on the type and severity of the symptoms.

Other than surgical options to repair the spine, physical therapy and occupational therapy can be vital. There are treatments for the various specific symptoms as well, such as treatment for urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence.

A person with the mildest form of spina bifida does not require treatment.


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