What is spina bifida?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Spina bifida, meaning "cleft spine," is a birth defect that occurs when the neural tube does not close or develop properly by the twenty-eighth day after conception. The defect results in the incomplete formation of the spine, brain, or lining around the brain and spinal cord-called the meninges. Depending on the severity of the defect and amount of nerve damage, symptoms of spina bifida range from none to complete paralysis.

There are three types of congenital abnormalities that often are called spina bifida:
  • True spina bifida -- an abnormality of the boney spinal column, consisting of absence of vertebral arches through which spinal membranes with or without spinal cord tissue may (or may not) protrude
  • Meningocele -- the above, plus a protrusion of the membranous meninges -- the covering of the spinal canal -- through the above defect
  • Myomeningocele -- the above, plus a protrusion of elements of the spinal nerves through the above defect

Spina bifida, which literally means "cleft spine," is characterized by the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or meninges (the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord). It is the most common neural tube defect in the United States-affecting 1,500 to 2,000 of the more than four million babies born in the country each year.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.