Spina bifida is one of the birth defects that affect about 10% of newborns worldwide, with affected babies living with the condition for the rest of their lives. However, distribution of cases is uneven across the world. For instance, the condition occurs in at least two newborns out of every 1,000 births in developing countries and at least one newborn out of every 1,000 births in developed countries. It is a condition of birth defect associated with incomplete development of the spine.
The spine is naturally made up of the spinal column, which is a structure made up of bones, the spinal canal, which houses spinal cord that connects body nerves to the brain. Spina bifida occurs when something goes wrong, resulting in incomplete development of the spinal column or incomplete formation of the spinal cord. The condition can also occur due to incomplete development of the tissue that covers both the spinal column and canal, leaving some gaps in between.
There are different types of Spina bifida with each type presenting different symptoms.
• Myelomeningocele – This is a serious type of Spina bifida characterized by a gap in the spinal column, leading to protrusion of spinal cord and surrounding tissue, which results in formation of a sac in unborn baby’s back. It can cause serious damage to the spinal cord in addition to exposing it to serious infections. This type of the condition presents in form of weak legs, bowel/urine incontinence and loss of sensation in skin that covers legs once a baby is born and grows up. An affected fetus can also be born only to have excess fluid in the brain.
• Meningocele – Unlike myelomeningocele, this type of spinal bifida is characterized by a gap in the spinal column, a gap through which only the tissues that surround the spinal cord protrude. This type of the condition is in most cases reversed and it does not cause any damage to the spinal cord.
• Occulta – This is the most common type of Spina bifida that affects majority of unborn. It is a mild condition compared to the two above. Although it is also characterized by a gap in the spinal column, the gap is very small and is usually covered by body tissue that prevents protrusion of the spinal cord, surrounding tissue or both. This type of Spina bifida does not present any symptoms although affected newborns may experience weakness in the legs once they are born and live to grow up.
What causes Spina bifida remains unknown. However, medical experts believe that its occurrence is linked to genetics, environmental factors and lack of folic acid before conception and soon after conception.
Treating Spina bifida depends on type of the condition that has correctly been diagnosed. Surgery is normally performed in case of both myelomeningocele and meningocele before or after a baby is born to close the resultant gap in the spinal column. Babies born with occulta type of the condition are normally supported through proper diet to help strengthen the thin tissue that covers the resultant gap. Both occupational and physiotherapy therapies are usually undertaken for all the three cases. Treatment also extends to addressing associated symptoms.
Occurrence of Spina bifida can easily be prevented. Women planning to conceive need to be checked to determine their body readiness to conceive. Regular health and pregnancy check ups are also become very important soon after conception. These are very important because treating Spina bifida can be done before a baby is born.