Spina Bifida (Neural Tube Defect)

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida, which literally means "cleft spine," is characterized by the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or meninges (the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord). It is the most common n eural tube defect in the United States -- affecting 1,500 to 2,000 of the more than 4 million babies born in the country each year. There are an estimated 166,000 individuals with spina bifida living in the United States.

What are the different types of spina bifida?

There are four types of spina bifida: occulta, closed neural tube defects, meningocele, and myelomeningocele.

Occulta is the mildest and most common form in which one or more vertebrae are malformed. The name "occulta," which means "hidden," indicates that the malformation, or opening in the spine, is covered by a layer of skin. This form of spina bifida is present in 10 to 20 percent of the general population and rarely causes disability or symptoms.

Closed neural tube defects make up the second type of spina bifida. This form consists of a diverse group of spinal defects in which the spinal cord is marked by a malformation of fat, bone, or membranes. In some individuals there are few or no symptoms; in others the malformation causes partial paralysis with urinary and bowel dysfunction.

In the third type, meningocele, spinal fluid and the meninges protrude through an abnormal vertebral opening. The malformation contains no neural elements and may or may not be covered by a layer of skin. Some individuals with meningocele may have few or no symptoms while others may experience symptoms similar to closed neural tube defects.

Myelomeningocele, the fourth form, is the most severe and occurs when the spinal cord or neural elements are exposed through the opening in the spine, resulting in partial or complete motor paralysis and sensory deficits within the parts of the body below the spinal opening. The paralysis may be so severe that the affected individual is unable to walk and may have urinary and bowel dysfunction.

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