Spina bifida, «SPY nuh BIHF uh duh», is a spinal defect that is present at birth. The spine encloses and protects the spinal cord. In spina bifida, the spinal cord does not form properly and the vertebrae and skin cannot form around it.
There are several types of spina bifida, and they vary in severity. The most familiar and serious type is open spina bifida, also called meningomyelocele «muh NIHNG goh MY uh luh seel». This form of spina bifida can be life-threatening during infancy and causes mild to severe disabilities in all who survive. It occurs in 1 of every 2,000 live births. In addition to spinal defects, open spina bifida is characterized by abnormalities of the brain and of the muscles and skin that lie over the spine. At birth, the baby has an opening in the skin over the middle or lower part of the back.
Open spina bifida results from an error in the development of the embryo that occurs about a month after a woman becomes pregnant. This error may have various causes, including the use of alcohol or certain medications by the pregnant woman or exposure to extreme heat. Genetic factors appear to be very important.
Infants with open spina bifida require various types of surgery, including surgery immediately after birth to close the open spine. Without treatment, most infants will die within a few years or become severely disabled.
Disabilities common in people born with open spina bifida include paralysis or weakness of the legs and lack of bowel or bladder control. Adults may experience impaired sexual function. Most infants also have hydrocephalus «HY droh SEHF uh luhs», an enlargement of the head due to blockage of fluid flow from the brain. These infants require surgery to prevent brain damage.
Blood tests and ultrasound examinations during pregnancy usually can detect open spina bifida in a fetus. Most people born with open spina bifida can become independent adults, despite permanent disability, if given good parenting, medical treatment, social opportunity, and education. Folic acid, also called folate, may often prevent open spina bifida. Ideally, a woman should take small amounts of this vitamin in the month or two before she becomes pregnant and in the first three months of the pregnancy.
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