One of the most common disorders that children are born with is spina bifida. The name means split spine and it comes with a vast array of symptoms, from barely any at all to a form so severe it means that a patient may never walk.
Just fifty years ago, only 10% of babies with spina bifida made it past their 1st birthdays. Today, that number has grown as we research ways to either avoid it happening in the first place or better treat those who are afflicted.
Spina Bifida is a neural tube defect, meaning that it is a problem involving the brain and spinal cord. Many with the disorder also have hydrocephaly which may require a shunt to drain the excess spinal fluid out of the brain. Although there are various types, the main category is myelomeningocele or ‘open’ spina bifida where there is an obvious hole caused by the incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord during gestation. It cannot be cured but instead surgery and therapy is required to deal with the symptoms that may include leg weakness, orthopedic abnormalities, poor kidney function, pressure sores and skin irritation.
There are some cases of spina bifida occulta that may go unnoticed for a lifetime. Here there is no obvious hole in the lower back or anywhere else, there may be a dimple, a dark spot, swelling or a hairy patch where the problem is, but it is so minor that many may not even notice. This is the ‘hidden’ form of the disorder and usually doesn’t bring any significant challenges with it.
The meningocele type lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It brings with it mild problems and is usually detected by a sac of fluid present at the gap in the back. Much study is still ongoing concerning whether or not fetal surgery is better than waiting until the baby is born to close the opening. Tests like amniocentesis can check for spina bifida while the baby is still in the womb.
This disease can’t be cured, but the symptoms of it can range wildly from one child to the next. With more research and study there may be hope for the future of the disorder, but until then we need to give kids affected by spina bifida all the support and help that they will need to ensure they live a fulfilling life.