Spina Bifida (Resources updated July 2015) (English and Spanish) (Center for Parent Information & Resources, CPIR)


Spina bifida is one of the most common birth defects in the United States, affecting some 1,500 babies each year. Spina bifida happens during the first month or so of pregnancy and means that the baby’s spine did not close completely. Damage to the nerves and the spinal cord may result.

In general, there are three types of spina bifida. These are:

Spina bifida occulta: In this mildest form of spina bifida, there’s a small defect or gap in one or more of the vertebrae (bones) of the spinal column. The defect may not be visible at birth and causes no harm. In fact, it’s estimated at 15% of healthy people have spina bifida occulta and don’t even know it. An X-ray of their back at some point later in life may reveal the condition. 

Meningocele: In this form of spina bifida, the protective covering around the spinal cord (called the meninges) has pushed out through the opening in the vertebrae as a sac called the “meningocele.” But the spinal cord is not in this sack, so there’s little or no damage to the nerve pathways.

Myelomeningocele: This is the most severe form of spina bifida, where a portion of the spinal cord itself protrudes through the back. In some cases, sacs are covered with skin. In others, tissue and nerves are exposed. This needs to be corrected surgically within 24 to 48 hours after birth, but some degree of nerve damage has already occurred and more severe disabilities can result. These may include problems with bladder and bowel control and partial or total paralysis of the parts of the body below where the spinal opening was. It’s not unusual to hear the terms “spina bifida” and “myelomeningocele” used interchangeably.


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