Spina Bifida is a congenital abnormality of the spine caused by a congenital neural tube defect which results in an abnormal opening of the spine, usually in the lower back. In the most severe cases, the spinal cord itself is exposed. In most cases, however, there is only partial exposure, with vertebral bones and spinal cord coverings, called meninges, missing. Even so, this can lead to a build-up of spinal fluid in the brain, potentially causing hydrocephalus or meningitis and therefore can cause damage to the spinal cord and brain tissue. Moderate to severe forms of spina bifida are also called meningocele and myelomeningocele neural tube defects.
The spinal column encloses and protects the spinal cord which transmits signals to and from the brain. When the spinal cord is exposed, it can be damaged from outside elements, either from amniotic fluid in the womb or from exposure to the outside world after birth. This damage can lead to numbness, paralysis, hydrocephalus, lack of bladder control and infection of the spinal cord and brain.
Spina bifida is the most common congenital abnormality, affecting .03% of all pregnancies. It generally can be diagnosed before birth, though in the most minor cases, it may not be detected until after birth. Prenatal tests in a second-trimester of the mother’s blood can detect CSF leakage from the fetus into the amniotic sac. A diagnosis can be confirmed with fetal ultrasound and amniocentesis.
The cause of Spina Bifida is unknown. However, the risk for Spina Bifida is significantly reduced by taking folic acid supplements. However, as this fetal abnormality can arise 4 weeks after conception, a mother may not even know that she is pregnant in order to take extra folic acid vitamins. This is why medical professionals advise taking prenatal vitamins prior to planning for a pregnancy.