One of the most common birth defects in the world, spina bifida occurs when the embryo’s spine and spinal cord don’t form properly because the developing neural tube fails to close correctly. The neural tube in an embryo eventually becomes the baby’s brain, as well as the spinal cord and the tissues that enclose it.
In normal fetal development, the neural tube forms early in pregnancy and closes by the 28th day after conception. In babies with spina bifida, however, a portion of the neural tube doesn’t close or develop properly, causing defects in the spinal cord and in the bones of the spine.
In the most severe form of spina bifida (open spina bifida), an open channel exists from the skin to the spinal cord. This defect is usually visible to the naked eye in a newborn or can be detected through fetal ultrasounds. As a result, this form of spina bifida is always diagnosed in newborn infants or in utero.
Spina bifida may affect the spinal cord coverings, the spinal cord itself, and/or any of the bones of the spine. This condition can cause serious infections, problems with bowel and bladder function, paralysis, and hydrocephalus.
Spina bifida can range from mild to severe, depending on the type of defect, size, location, and complications. When necessary, early treatment for spina bifida involves surgery — although such treatment doesn’t always completely resolve the problem.
Performing the surgery early can help minimize the risk of infection associated with the exposed nerves. It may also help protect the spinal cord from more trauma.
During the procedure, the neurosurgeon places the spinal cord and exposed tissue inside the baby’s body and covers them with muscle and skin. At the same time, the neurosurgeon may place a shunt in the baby’s brain to control hydrocephalus.