Spina bifida literally means “split spine” and is a developmental congenital disorder. In this condition, one or more spinal vertebrae overlying the spine do not fully form during development, meaning part of the spinal column does not close all the way.
No one knows the exact cause, it is likely a mixture of genetic and environmental factors acting together to cause the condition. We do know that maintaining healthy levels of folate, folic acid supplement, have been a key factor in prevention of spina bifida.
Folic acid is a B vitamin the body needs to grow and produce healthy new cells. It is found naturally in many foods and many cereal and bread products have folate added to them. Most people do not get enough folate through diet alone and should supplement with a vitamin containing folic acid.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps a woman's body produce healthy new cells. Taking folic acid before and during the first three months of pregnancy does not guarantee the baby will not have SB, but it can significantly reduce the risk. Research has shown that if women who could become pregnant were to take a multivitamin with folic acid, the risk of neural tube defects like Spina Bifida could be reduced by up to seventy percent.
Folate occurs naturally in foods like green vegetables, fruits and juices. Some cereal and bread have folic acid added to them. A diet high in folate is good for you, but most people do not get enough through food alone. The best way to get the right amount is to eat a healthy diet, and take a vitamin with folic acid every day. Women who are old enough to have babies should take folic acid to reduce the risk of neural tube defects including spina bifida. Folic acid is essential in the first several months of development. Since half of US pregnancies are unplanned, it is recommended that all women of child-bearing age preventatively take 400 mcg of folic acid daily.
There are several categories of spina bifida that will be briefly discussed.
Spina bifida occulta is the mildest and most common form of spina bifida. Approximately 15% of healthy people have this and may never know. In spina bifida occulta, a small outer portion of the vertebra is not completely closed, usually without any involvement of the spinal cord and nerves. Most people discover they have this through an incidental lumbar x-ray. In most cases spina bifida occulta does not require any specific treatment.
In spina bifida cystica a cyst protrudes through the defect where the bone did not completely form. This cyst may contain spinal fluid which may result in hydrocephalous, a condition with increased swelling and pressure on the brain or certain neurologic defects.
In a meningocele, the vertebrae develop normally without a gap, however, the fat covering the spinal cord and nerve roots balloon out through normal gaps within the vertebrae. This is like a sac that is pushed out from the spine. This sac contains spinal nerve fluid, usually without any nerve damage. Individuals may have minor disabilities however most do not have significant long term health difficulties as a result of the condition. It is important to monitor for the possibility of neurologic symptoms.
Myelomeningocele is the most serious form of spina bifida. In this condition the spinal cord protrudes through the unfused portion of the spinal canal. This portion of the protruding spinal cord and nerves may be damaged or lead to neurologic symptoms including paralysis or numbness. Myelomeningocele is associated with other spinal abnormalities and requires close observation and treatment.