October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month!

Health Care

October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month!

October is National Spina Bifida Awareness Month, so in the spirit I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of the most common birth defects in North America.

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida (Latin for “split spine”) is a neural tube birth defect (NTD) which occurs within the first weeks of pregnancy. The spinal column fails to develop properly resulting in varying degrees of permanent damage to the spinal cord and nervous system. Spina bifida can happen anywhere along a baby’s back between the head and the hips, but it happens most often in the lumbar spine (lower back).

Based on the severity and location of the lesion, spinda bifida can result in paralysis and loss of sensation of the legs, and affects the functioning of the bladder and bowel. It may also affect hand skills, visual, hearing and learning abilities.

There are 4 types of spinda bifida:

Myelomeningocele (Pronounced: my-low-meh-NIN-go-seal)

Myelomeningocele is the most severe form of spina bifida. The bones fail to close around the spinal cord and the meninges (coverings of the spinal cord). The meninges and spinal cord protrude to form a sac, which also holds cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This sac is usually transparent and not covered by skin. The spinal nerves are damaged.

Meningocele (me-nin GO-seal)

The bones do not close around the spinal cord. The meninges are pushed out through the opening to form a sac also containing cerebrospinal fluid. The spinal cord is not pushed into the sac, it remains in the spinal column and the nerves are not as affected. The sac that is formed is usually skin covered.


The mildest form of spina bifida. There is a small hole in the lower part of the spine where the bones did not properly close. The site of the defect may be marked by a dimple or tuft of hair. Many people have this condition and only become aware of it when they develop unexplained incontinence, back aches, or leg muscle changes.

Lipomyelomeningocele  (ly-po-my-low-meh-nin-go-seal)

There is a protrusion of abnormal fatty tissue through a defect in the lower spine. Damage to the nerves may occur from compression of the nerves by the fatty mass due to abnormal formation of the spinal cord.

What causes spina bifida?

There is no single known cause of spina bifida. Researchers are currently studying the effects of heredity, nutrition, environment and pollution, and how these affect prenatal development.

Most notably, low levels of folic acid have been linked to spina bifida. Folic acid plays a large role in cell growth and development, as well as tissue formation. Not having enough folic acid in the diet before and during early pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects.


Children born with spina bifida can access a number of services to help support their development. Typically there are a team of doctors (such as neurosurgeons, urologists, and orthopedic surgeons), physical and occupational therapists, and social workers that will work with the family to help the child achieve their potential.

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Jennifer Halfin, MSc(A) PT Reg (Ont)

About Jennifer Halfin, MSc(A) PT Reg (Ont)

Jennifer is a registered physiotherapist working in the field of paediatrics. She has worked with children of all ages, helping them to achieve their motor milestones through various therapeutic approaches. Jenn also has extensive experience working with infants with torticollis and plagiocephaly. As a new mom herself, she loves sharing her experiences and learning from others.

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