Spina bifida is a type of birth defect that develops when the spine and spinal cord fail to properly form.

This condition is a type of neural tube defect. The neural tube is the early form of a structure that should be gradually developing into the brain of the baby and its spinal cord, as well as the tissues enclosing them. The neural tube should form early in the mother’s pregnancy, closing within four weeks after conception. Spina bifida babies have neural tubes that do not properly develop or close like they should, leading to spinal cord effects and problems with spinal cord nerves and often the associated spinal bones.

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The type of spina bifida may vary from mild to severe, based upon the defect type, location, size, and complications.

  • Spina bifida occult: There are not normally any signs or symptoms evident since the spinal nerves are not typically involved. However, some indications may be seen on the skin of the newborn above the location of the spinal defect, including a small dimple or birthmark or an abnormal tuft of hair.
  • Myelomeningocele: This severe type of spina bifida can cause symptoms like the spinal canal remaining open in the lower or middle back, the protrusion of the spinal cord or nerves membranes that forms a sac, or exposure of tissues and nerves.
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Spina Bifida Symptoms

Spina bifida symptoms may vary in both type and severity. The various symptoms manifested by this condition can be different for each individual. Many organ systems can be affected and a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, and social workers all work together to treat each individual. Not all patients experience the same type or severity of symptoms. Typically, the higher the lesion or defect, the more severe symptoms.

  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Hydrocephalus (accumulation of fluid in the brain)
  • Orthopedic malformations
  • Weakness or loss of sensory and motor function (inability to walk)

The exact cause of spina bifida is currently uncertain. It may be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic risk factors like neural tube defects, family history, and folate deficiency.

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Managing Spina Bifida

In general, patients born with spina bifida have a plan with their medical and surgical teams at UCI Pediatric Urology to manage symptoms and associated conditions with the bladder, bowel, nervous and skeletal systems. These patients will require life-long care from a urologist.