October is National Spina Bifida Awareness Month, and today is World Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Day.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, roughly 10 to 20 percent of the general population has spina bifida. Most may not even know that they have it.
As statistics like this suggest, spina bifida is an extremely common condition. So, in honor of World Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Day, here are some important facts about spina bifida.
What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida is a type of neural tube defect (NTD) that typically occurs within the first month of a baby’s development. The neural tube forms along the back of an embryo when a specialized plate of cells (the “neural plate”) curls up into a tube. The top of this tube will become the brain and the rest will form the spinal cord.
In spina bifida, this neural tube does not close all the way, often resulting in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. Physical and intellectual effects may vary significantly, depending on the size and location of the opening and whether spinal cord and nerves are affected.
How common is spina bifida?
Spina bifida is the most common neural tube defect in the United States. Every year about 1,500 to 2,000 of the 4 million babies born in the U.S. are affected by spina bifida. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that there are about 166,000 individuals with spina bifida currently living in the United States.
What are the different types of spina bifida?
According to the CDC, the three most common types of spina bifida are myelomeningocele, meningocele, and spina bifida occulta.
Myelomeningocele is the most serious type of spina bifida. This type occurs when the spinal cord and nerves are pushed through the opening in the spinal column. Individuals with this form of spina bifida are often partially or completely paralyzed.
Meningocele is a type of spina bifida in which a sac of fluid is pushed through the opening in the backbone, but this sac does not contain the spinal cord. Individuals with this form of spina bifida experience little to no nerve damage.
The mildest type of spina bifida is spina bifida occulta, or “hidden” spina bifida. In this type, there is no opening or sac on the spine, rather there is just a small gap or malformation. As a result, the spinal cord and nerves are usually unaffected. In fact, many healthy people with spina bifida occulta experience no symptoms at all. An individual with this type may not be diagnosed until late childhood or adulthood, and some people may never learn that they have it.
Hydrocephalus is a separate condition, characterized by the build-up of fluid in the brain. However, these conditions are often grouped together because roughly 70 to 90 percent of individuals with myelomeningocele are also affected by hydrocephalus.
What are the risk factors?
Little is known about what causes spina bifida. Scientists believe that some combination of genetics and environment play a role.
Studies have shown that it is possible to reduce the likelihood of having a baby with spina bifida. Risk factors include certain medical conditions such as diabetes or obesity, some medications, and fevers or extended exposure to heat, such as in a hot tub or sauna.
Folic acid supplements are also recommended to help reduce the risk of spina bifida. Studies have shown that pregnant women who don’t get enough folic acid in their diets are more likely to have babies with spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
Because spina bifida occurs within the first month of a pregnancy – before most women know that they’re pregnant – doctors recommend that all women who might become pregnant take folic acid supplements and manage other risk factors in order to prevent spina bifida.
These preventative measures do not guarantee that a baby will be born without spina bifida, but they do significantly reduce the risks. Although we currently know a lot about spina bifida and how to prevent it, more research is necessary to fully understand the causes and risk factors.