Understanding Spina Bifida Birth Defects


What is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects a baby’s spine. In the United States, spina bifida is the most common type of birth defect that causes permanent disabilities. It occurs early in the mother’s pregnancy, usually within the first month — often before the mother even knows she is pregnant.

Spina bifida is a type of neural tube defect (NTD). The neural tube is a group of cells that form into a tube early in fetal development. The tube will later develop into the spinal cord, brain, and spinal column (the backbone). A neural tube defect occurs when the tube does not completely close, leaving a hole. Then the backbone doesn’t close the way it should, and the spinal cord is left unprotected.

The type and severity of the symptoms of spina bifida vary a lot from one individual to another, depending on the size of the openings in their spines and where on the spine those openings are located. Symptoms may range from no disability, on one extreme, to paralysis on the other. In between, people with spina bifida may have limitations in their abilities to move and function. Proper treatment is essential, enabling most people with spina bifida to lead full lives.

The Three Most Common Types of Spina Bifida

Myelomeningocele is the most common and most severe type, causing moderate to severe disabilities. As many as 90% of children with this type of spina bifida will have hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). Other complications and disabilities may include life-threatening infections, lack of sensation in the legs, feet, or hands, inability to move the legs, and problems with elimination. This type of spina bifida occurs when there is an opening in the backbone, and a sac of fluid containing part of the baby’s spinal cord and nerves pushes through the opening, damaging the tissues and nerves.

Meningocele may cause minor disabilities. As with the previous type, a sac of fluid goes through an opening in the backbone, but with this type, the sac does not contain the spinal cord, and there is little or no damage to the nerves.

Spina Bifida Occulta is the least harmful type, usually not causing any disability. Because it is so mild and often undetected, it is sometimes known as “hidden spina bifida.” It may be discovered when someone has an X-ray of their back done for other reasons. In this type, there is no sac pushing through the backbone, and instead of a hole in the backbone, there is only a small gap.

How is Spina Bifida Diagnosed?

The more severe types of spina bifida may be diagnosed during pregnancy or after birth. The mildest type, spina bifida occulta, may not be diagnosed until late in childhood or until the person becomes an adult, if it is detected at all.

Diagnostic Tests Given During Pregnancy:

  • Tests can diagnose spina bifida during pregnancy as early as the second trimester.
  • AFP is a protein the fetus produces. A high level of AFP may indicate spina bifida. A blood test measures AFP by detecting how much has passed from the fetus to the mother’s bloodstream.
  • Amniocentesis can also be used to measure AFP levels by testing how much is in a sample of amniotic fluid.
  • An ultrasound may also be used to confirm a spina bifida diagnosis.

Early detection can make a huge difference in the baby’s subsequent quality of life. Unfortunately, if a pregnant woman does not receive adequate prenatal care, or if an ultrasound does not show the affected area clearly, then spina bifida may not be diagnosed until after the baby is born.

Diagnosing Spina Bifida After Birth

Sometimes there is an abnormality on the baby’s back, such as a dimple or hairy skin patch, that should alert doctors that there is the potential for spina bifida. In that case, they should conduct more tests, such as CAT scans, MRIs, or X-rays, that will show more about the condition of the baby’s spine.

Treating Spina Bifida

Treatments for spina bifida vary a great deal because the symptoms and severity vary so much. Options for treatment include:

  • Surgery to close the opening in the spine, protect the spinal cord, and prevent infection. Surgery may be performed within the first few days after birth. In some cases, surgery may be performed before the baby is born, though this option is not available everywhere.
  • Surgery to install a shunt to drain excess fluid from the brain in babies that have hydrocephalus (water on the brain).
  • Surgery to treat a tethered spinal cord, where the cord is attached to the spinal canal instead of floating freely. Left untreated, this condition can cause permanent disabilities, including back pain, weak lower extremities, scoliosis, and loss of bladder and bowel control.
  • Assistive devices, including wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and braces.
  • Physical therapy.
  • Regular physical activity, including using facilities accessible to people with disabilities.

Can You Get Compensation for Your Child’s Spina Bifida?

Doctors and other medical professionals have a legal obligation to provide proper care to their patients. Diagnosing spina bifida as early as possible is important for the baby’s future well-being. If a doctor fails to diagnose the condition or fails to properly inform you of the condition, the doctor may have committed medical malpractice.

Having a child with spina bifida can be expensive. Costs for medical care, therapy, assistive devices, and other necessary expenses may be overwhelming — and your child may need extensive care for the rest of his or her life.

Filing a medical malpractice lawsuit is a way to relieve the financial pressure. You may get compensation for all the expenses involved in treating spina bifida, as well as additional compensation for pain and suffering and lost income. A lawsuit gives you the opportunity to provide your child with the best possible life while holding negligent doctors or hospitals responsible.

The experienced birth injury attorneys in the Raynes & Lawn law firm are committed to treating every client as a valued individual while providing outstanding results. Call us at 1-800-535-1797 for a free consultation and case evaluation.


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