Spina bifida is a congenital disorder that affects roughly 1,500 newborn infants in the US every year. It is characterized by an embryonic neural tube that has failed to close completely. Some of the vertebrae may be only partially formed, causing an opening where bones failed to fuse. This gap in the spinal bones becomes a problem when a segment of the spinal cord protrudes through the narrow neck of the gap; This portion of the spinal cord may be, in essence, "outside" of the body. Sometimes, spinal fluid flows into the sac where the spinal cord protrusion is located, although this is not always the case. Cases of spina bifida can be categorized into three classifications:
Spina Bifida Occulta. The mildest and most common form of the condition, this type of bifida involves minor gaps between the vertebrae that would normally be closed. These gaps are not large enough to allow a spinal cord protrusion; Because of this, sufferers rarely have any symptoms, and many people may not know that they have this condition. Estimates put the amount of people with occulta at about one tenth of all people. No causal relationship has been established between the condition and back pain, however, research has shown that back pain sufferers who also have spina bifida occulta tend to experience pain that is more than that of other sufferers.
Spina Bifida Cystica with Meningocele. This type involves a cyst that does not contain a portion of the spinal cord. This is the rarest form of spina bifida, and is fairly easy to treat. Serious, long-term damage is rare; one of the primary complications that may arise is infection due to surgical treatment.
Spina Bifida Cystica with Myelomeningocele. The most dangerous type of bifida, this category involves cysts that contain a protruding portion of the patient's spinal cord. The part of the spinal cord that is enclosed in the cyst is usually damaged or undeveloped; because of this, patients with a myelomeningocele suffer from partial paralysis and a loss of the sense of touch in the lower regions of the body. The degree of the paralysis and loss of sensation depends on how high or low on the spinal the damaged portion of the spinal cord is; the higher it is, the greater the expected degree of paralysis.
Spina bifida can be addressed with surgery, as long as it is performed while the patient is still in their early years. Before the patient is operated on, special care must be taken to protect the delicate cyst and its sensitive contents. Although the condition can lead to paralysis and disability, many spina bifida sufferers, with the aid of devices such as wheelchairs, have been able to lead long and productive lives.