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Spina Bifida

Spina bifida, which means “open spine,” occurs when an unborn baby’s neural tube does not close properly. This opening can happen anywhere along the spine. It exposes a portion of the spinal cord and nerves, leaving them susceptible to damage.

Spina Bifida Treatment: Why Choose Us?

Doctors at the Fetal Care Center, the only center of its kind in the St. Louis region, perform fetal surgery to treat myelomeningocele, a severe form of spina bifida. Not all babies with spina bifida require this type of surgery. Our doctors assess your unborn baby’s specific situation to determine appropriate treatment.

Jackson laying in his parents' arms
Jackson, underwent open fetal myelomeningocele repair for spina bifida at 25-weeks in utero.

If needed, we perform fetal surgery to close the spinal opening while your unborn baby is still in the womb. Only select fetal centers in the nation have a surgical team with the skillset to perform this complex procedure.

The Fetal Care Center partners with pediatric specialists at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s Spina Bifida Clinic to provide ongoing care for children born with spina bifida.

About Spina Bifida

Spina bifida affects the development of a baby’s brain, spine, spinal cord and meninges, the tissue that covers and protects the brain and spinal cord. It is the most common neural tube defect, affecting approximately 3 out of every 10,000 newborns.

There are two main types of spina bifida:

  • Myelomeningocele: In this severe form of spina bifida, a fluid-filled sac containing the spinal cord and nerves develops outside an unborn baby’s back. Babies born with myelomeningocele may experience:
    • Paralysis or muscle weakness
    • Difficulties with movements, especially walking
    • Bladder and bowel problems
    • Hydrocephalus, excess fluid in the brain
  • Meningocele: A fluid-filled sac that does not contain the spinal cord or nerves protrudes outside an unborn baby’s back. Babies born with meningocele usually experience little, if any, nerve damage. However, they may have bladder and bowel problems.

Diagram of the anatomy of Myelomeningocele (Spine Bifida)

Causes of Spina Bifida

While there is no definitive cause of spina bifida, certain factors increase risk, including:

  • Genetics: If you, your partner or one of your children has spina bifida, there is about a four percent chance of having another baby with a neural tube defect. Our genetic counselors can help you understand your future risk of having another child with spina bifida.
  • Vitamin deficiency: Women who are low on folic acid, a B vitamin, before and during pregnancy are more likely to have a baby with spina bifida. Aim for 400 to 600 micrograms of folic acid every day.
  • Ethnicity: Neural tube defects are more common among Caucasians and Hispanics.
  • Gender: Neural tube defects occur five times more often in girls than boys.

Diagnosing Spina Bifida

Our ultrasound experts use advanced technology to detect spina bifida in unborn babies. A maternal-fetal medicine specialist is always present during these procedures to quickly explain your unborn baby’s condition and treatment options.

We perform a large number of high-risk pregnancy tests every year. This volume gives our team the skillset to detect spina bifida early. Throughout pregnancy, you undergo regular ultrasounds with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist to monitor your unborn baby’s development.

Your doctor also may perform an amniocentesis to test amniotic fluid from the womb. High levels of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), a protein produced by unborn babies, may indicate spina bifida. Learn more about high-risk pregnancy tests.

Treating Spina Bifida

Treatment options for spina bifida depend on the severity of your unborn baby’s condition. These options include:

  • Fetal surgery: Unborn babies with the most severe form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele, may benefit from fetal surgery to close the spinal opening. Our experts are among a select few in the country, and the only ones in the St. Louis region, with the skillset to perform this complex surgical procedure. Learn more about fetal surgery for spina bifida.
  • Pediatric surgery (after delivery): Pediatric neurosurgeons at St. Louis Children’s Hospital perform surgery to close the spinal opening after a baby is born. Learn more about pediatric spina bifida treatment at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Contact Us

To make an appointment with a Washington University fetal care specialist at the Women & Infants Center, call 855-925-0631.