What is Spina bifida?
Spina bifida or "open spine" is a congenital defect of the nervous system. The spine is not embedded in the vertebral canal and protrudes on the surface. This causes paralysis in the lower half of the body.
How does Spina Bifida develop?
The defect occurs during the first few weeks of pregnancy. The nervous system is formed from the outer skin of the embryo, which in normal development closes over it completely. Incomplete closure causes part of the nervous system to remain on the surface of the body (open spine). This means that in this region the spinal cord is not lying inside the vertebral bodies of the spinal column in a protective tube. The vertebra are split, hence the Latin name " Spina Bifida ". The functionality of the nerve tissue left on the outside is severely impaired. Spina bifida affects less than one child in every 1000 births. In Switzerland, around 80 children a year are born with Spina Bifida. The cause of the disease is largely unknown, although we do know that taking folic acid before pregnancy can reduce the risk.
What is the treatment for Spina Bifida?
Infants born with Spina Bifida will normally have to be operated on within 48 hours after birth. The open spine is closed to avoid the risk of a fatal infection. In some instances, surgeons will decide not to operate but to leave the wound heal without intervention. Damage to the spinal cord is irreparable, as nerve cells do not regrow. Children with spina bifida may also have hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Because of the malformation in the nervous system, the brain fluid cannot drain away and accumulates as "brain water". This leads to excess pressure which, if left untreated causes brain damage. Children with hydrocephalus are operated on immediately after birth. A plastic tube system is used to ensure that the brain fluid can drain away.
What are the affects of Spina Bifida?
The damage caused to the spinal column by Spina Bifida has many different effects. It paralyses the body in the area of the open spine and below it. Sensations like touch, heat or pain are not passed on to the brain. And the other way round, the brain has no control over the affected regions. The muscles are paralyzed. Bladder and bowel function are almost always affected. The malformations cannot be cured. Which is why the intensive medical care of these small patients is focused on the side effects of the disease. Muscular paralysis can lead to defective positions of the joints and curvature of the spine. The abnormal bladder function can prevent urine from draining away from the kidneys and leads to frequent infections of the urinary tract.
To enable Spina Bifida patients to lead an independent life, children are encouraged to be as self-reliant as possible from a very early age. Thanks to orthopedics and physiotherapy, many learn how to sit upright, stand and even walk by themselves. Children with extensive paralysis quickly learn how to use a wheelchair.