Spina bifida is a developmental congenital abnormality or a birth defect which starts to develop at an early stage of pregnancy. Spina bifida is caused when the embryonic neural tube is not closed completely. What exactly happens in this condition is that; the vertebrates over the spinal cord are not fully formed, due to which they remain open. A large opening allows a part of the spinal cord to protrude through the openings between the bones. Spina bifida is a deformity that can be classified in four categories, spina bifida cystica/myelomeningocele, lipomeningocele, meningocele and spina bifida occulta.
Many tend to have myths about its expectancy. However, there are no conclusive studies suggesting the same. Spina bifida occulta is often not detected until the person takes an X-ray of the back for an unrelated problem. Although, this spinal cord condition is considered to be harmless and does not drastically affect the bodily functions, it could be associated with other complications. If it is accompanied by any of those complications, then it might cause certain problems relating to the functioning of the body. Occult Spinal Dysraphism (OSD) is the term that is used for these associated problems of spina bifida.
Given below are the complications that could be associated with spina bifida occulta which might make the condition a cause of concern.
- Tethered Spinal Cord: In this condition the lower section of the spinal cord is abnormally attached to the other structures surrounding that area which results in the spinal cord to get stretched and damaged.
- Thickened Filum Terminale: The thickening at the end portion of the spinal cord.
- Diastematomyelia: This is a condition where the spinal cord is divided into two with a piece of cartilage or bone.
- Lipomyelomeningocele: A condition where the tethered spinal cord is attached to a cyst in the back.
- Fatty Filum Terminale: Fatty lump or tumors at the end of the spine or in the surrounding tissues.
- Dermal Sinus Tract: A condition where the skin on the back is connected to the spinal canal which looks like a band of tissues on the outside.
Signs and Symptoms
Any of the associated problems with spina bifida occulta could have an effect on the nervous system, the symptoms of which are given below:
- Back pain and stiffness
- Pain and weakness in the legs
- Numbness in the legs
- Change in the bowel functions
- Orthopedics deformity in the back, legs and feet
An underlying spinal cord abnormality can be identified by the appearance of the skin on the lower back. Given below are the skin defects that can be useful in identifying an underlying spina bifida occulta.
- A hairy patch on the lower back
- Red or purple spot on the skin which denotes a collection of blood vessels
- A small dimple called sacral dimple on the skin of the lower back just above the hip
- Skin discoloration or a hypopigmented spot or an area with light skin color
- Dark spots called Mongolian spots on the lower back
These are some of the skin abnormalities that can be used to relate any of the other above mentioned nervous system effects and symptoms of an underlying spinal bifida occulta. One must remember that, not all the skin abnormalities that are mentioned necessarily suggest that the person is suffering from this condition. If one has both, skin abnormality and symptoms such as numbness of feet, weakness in the legs, etc. then, it is advisable to visit the doctor.
A thorough diagnosis will be able to confirm if the symptoms suggest spina bifida occulta or any other condition. Diagnosis can be done through X-ray but, the more reliable form of diagnosis is through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as it can measure the length of the spinal cord. It also detects the presence of any tissue swelling in the spinal canal at the region of the bone abnormality and it can also measure the nerve roots. In newborns though, ultrasound is used to diagnose this malformation.
As spina bifida occulta and the above mentioned complications related to it occur at an early stage of pregnancy, it cannot be completely cured or treated by an operation or a surgery. It means that there is always a risk of leading to permanent disabilities. The most that doctors can do is to release the spinal cord from things that could include a cyst, fibrous tissue or a fibrous band that is causing compression in the region.
Spina bifida occulta can be prevented by managing the amount of folic acid levels in the mother's pregnancy diet. A regular medical checkup is a must once any of the symptoms relating to this medical condition are noticed, this mainly applies for children. If identified at an early age, the risk of this medical condition leading to any other fatal consequences can be avoided.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.