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Guide by Condition: Spina Bifida

Posted by Mike Phipps on December 10, 2018

Understanding and living with Spina Bifida

Guide by Condition: Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is a birth defect which causes physical symptoms that can be treated with surgery, therapies or mobility aids to help manage them and help the person lead independent and fulfilling lives.

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is a condition where a baby’s spine and spinal cord don’t develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spinal cord. This occurs when the neural tube, which eventually develops into the foetus’s spinal cord, doesn’t develop properly and so leads to defects in the vertebrae and spinal cord. There are different types of spina bifida, including:

    • Myelomeningocele - this is the most severe type, as the baby’s spinal canal remains open along several vertebrae which allows the spinal cord and its protective membranes to push out and form a sac in the baby’s back.
    • Meningocele - another serious type of spina bifida where the protective membranes around the spinal cord push out through the spine. However, the spinal cord usually develops normally in this instance, so surgery can often be used to remove the protective membranes without causing nerve damage.
    • Spina bifida occulta - the most common and mildest type of spina bifida. Occulta is where only one or more vertebrae don’t form properly, causing only a very small gap. In fact, this type is so mild that most people are unaware that they have it, as it doesn’t usually cause any problems.

     What causes spina bifida?

    Although it is not yet clear what causes spina bifida, there are a number of factors that can add to the risk of it developing, including low folic acid intake during pregnancy,  family history of spina bifida or taking certain kinds of medication whilst pregnant.

    Living with spina bifida

    This condition can sometimes be sorted through surgery, however, if the nervous system has already been damaged it can cause symptoms such as:

    • Weakened or completely paralysed legs.
    • Bowel or urinary incontinence.
    • Loss of skin sensation in the lower part of the body, leading to accidental injuries.
    • Many babies with spina bifida can develop a build-up of fluid on the brain (hydrocephalus) which can cause further damage.
    • Some people with spina bifida can have learning difficulties.

    Treating spina bifida

    There are several ways to treat spina bifida, including:

    • Having surgery after the birth to close the spine gap.
    • Physiotherapy and occupational therapy to make everyday life easier.
    • Treatments for bowel and urinary problems.
    • Mobility aids to make walking easier.

    Walking aids and wheelchairs can be ideal for people with spina bifida. If a walking aid is something you’d require, there are plenty of different options, from sticks and crutches, to manually operated and powered wheelchairs.

    More information: