Spina Bifida

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If you've just been told that your baby is at risk for spina bifida, you likely have a lot of questions. Maybe you found out at an early ultrasound. Or maybe you didn't find out until after birth. Even though spina bifida can develop before the mother even knows she's pregnant, sometimes it's only discovered much later.

Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects how a baby's spine develops. The symptoms can range from unnoticeable to serious, but treatment options can often help.

Spina Bifida Types

There are 3 kinds of spina bifida:

  • Occulta — a small defect in one or more backbones. This is the least severe, and most common, form.
  • Meningocele — when membranes poke through an open part of the spine and can form a cyst.
  • Myelomeningocele — the most severe form of spina bifida. Membranes poke through the spine and contain nerve roots or spinal cord. This can lead to:
    • Paralysis and incontinence of bowel and bladder 
    • Hydrocephalus—a build-up of fluids in the brain that increases pressure on the brain


Most children with occulta spina bifida will never be diagnosed. This condition rarely causes any symptoms or complications. It may be discovered during a routine medical exam or following X-rays of the lower back.

The immediate symptoms of meningocele and myelomeningocele include:

  • Sac filled with fluid leading out from the baby's spine
  • Spinal cord and tissue may also protrude through the back

Infants and children with meningocele or myelomeningocele spina bifida may also experience long-term symptoms such as:

  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Frequent urinary tract and other infections
  • Learning disabilities
  • Buildup of fluid in the brain
  • Curvature of the spine
  • Inability to walk

Many children with myelomeningocele use a wheelchair.

Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA Health Children's

Prenatal Testing 

During the first trimester of your pregnancy,  a blood test can predict your baby’s risk for spina bifida. If the test predicts a high risk of neural tube defects, then we may perform two more tests:

  • Amniocentesis — we take a sample of the fluid surrounding the baby to measure for factors indicating spine problems
  • Ultrasound

A diagnosis before your baby is born can help you and your doctor make plans if your baby will need further treatment.

After Birth Testing

Meningocele and myelomeningocele are usually found through a physical exam. Your baby will need many tests to find out which bones and nerves are involved. Your baby may also have kidney damage. We closely monitor babies with these types of spina bifida.


Occulta spina bifida requires no treatment.

Meningocele spina bifida is treated with surgery to remove the cyst.

Treatment for myelomeningocele spina bifida is complicated. Surgery may be needed to put the nerves and spinal cord back in place. Physical therapy can help with motor skills. And supportive care can address other complications.

Treatments for myelomeningocele may include:

  • Surgery
  • Physical therapy
  • Ongoing treatment

Preventing Spina Bifida

We don’t know what causes spina bifida, but genetics may be a factor. Many studies have also shown a link between a low folate diet in the mother and an increased risk of the disease.

Taking folic acid supplements before conception and throughout pregnancy can reduce the risk for spina bifida.

A vitamin supplement, like a prenatal vitamin, is the most reliable method of getting folate. But you can also get folate from these foods:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Orange juice
  • Beans
  • White flour products and cereals fortified with folate

You should also ask your doctor if the medications you take can increase the risk of having a baby with the disease.