Medical Dictionary

Medical Dictionary

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Spina bifida

Spina bifida is a condition where the spine does not develop properly, leaving a gap in the spine.

During the first month of life, an embryo (developing baby) grows a structure called the neural tube that will eventually form the spine and nervous system. When something goes wrong with this process, the result is called a "neural tube defect". Spina bifida is one type of neural tube defect. The spine consists of the spinal column, which is a solid structure made up of bones (called vertebral bodies) separated by discs of fibrous tissue.  Behind this is an enclosed space called the spinal canal, which contains the spinal cord. The spinal cord connects all the nerves in the body to the brain. The canal is surrounded by arches of bone attached to the backs of the vertebral bodies. In cases of spina bifida, something goes wrong and the arches of bone do not fully close. Sometimes there is only a gap in the bony arch, but at other times the spinal cord is also involved and does not form properly either. The skin over the arch can also either be intact or have a gap as well.

The exact cause is unknown, but several things can increase your risk of having a baby with the condition, the most significant being a lack of folic acid before and in the early stages of pregnancy.

Myelomeningocele is the most serious type of spina bifida, occurring in 1 in every 1,000 births. It causes extensive damage to the nervous system, which can often result in partial or total permanent paralysis of the lower limbs.

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