Q&A: What exactly is spina bifida?
Can you please explain what spina bifida is? I know my OB always told me to take folic acid to prevent my baby from developing diseases like spina bifida, but I don't quite understand how it affects the body. Can babies with spina bifida grow up to be functioning, healthy adults?
Spina bifida (translated from Latin, this literally means “split spine”) is a birth defect (specifically, a neural tube defect) that occurs in early fetal development. The neural tube is the immature, early beginnings of the nervous system—eventually forming the brain and spinal cord. With spina bifida, the neural tube cannot develop properly in the early stages to develop these distinct organs. There are three types of spina bifida, ranging from the least to most severe:
- Occulta (the mildest form)
Due to this defect, the spinal cord is interrupted, or not completely formed. The vertebrae (or spinal bones) are the bones that surround and protect the spinal cord. When the neural tube defect occurs, the vertebrae do not completely fuse, thus allowing the cord to protrude through the bones. It can be surrounded by a fluid-filled sac. This occurs most commonly in the lumbar or sacral areas—the two lowest portions of the spine.
Spina bifida can be corrected surgically, but most times there can be functional problems associated with the nerves that were involved. This nerve damage can result in many different issues, including leg weakness and bladder and/or bowel control problems. There are many wonderful resources for families of children with spina bifida. Having support, education and treatment early in life will provide the best opportunity to live the fullest possible life. The outcome and long term affect depend on the severity of the spina bifida.
In the past, after delivery of a baby with spina bifida, surgery after birth was the only way to correct problems. Due to amazing advances in fetal surgery, some cases are corrected while Mom is still pregnant! The NIH (National Institutes of Heath is conducting studies to compare results and long-term effects of the prenatal or postnatal surgery).
According to the Spina Bifida Association (SBA), spina bifida occurs in seven of every 10,000 births in the United States. The SBA estimates that there are about 70,000 people living in the United States with this condition.
Research has found that neural tube defects can be reduced by a staggering 70 percent if women are taking folic acid prior to conception. The recommended dose is 400 micrograms a day. If you have a history of having a previous child with a neural tube defect, your doctor will recommend much higher doses. Folic acid is a B vitamin and helps with the formation of healthy cells. If you are thinking about becoming pregnant or are of child-bearing age, make sure you are taking folic acid!