Minor cases of spina bifida may not produce any symptoms or disabilities, but severe cases almost always do. The most common and severe type of spina bifida is called myelomeningocele, and this article describes common complications that may accompany this form of the condition.
Paralysis: People with paralysis caused by spina bifida will require life-long assistance from wheelchairs, leg braces, or crutches to help them move around. Paralysis may be partial or complete. Partial paralysis means a partial loss of feeling and function (such as the inability to move one leg), while complete paralysis is the total loss of feeling and function in the affected area.
Hydrocephalus: This condition occurs when there is an increased amount of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. Hydrocephalus is treated with a shunt, which is a tube that is surgically implanted into the brain and drains the fluid into the abdomen.
Bowel and bladder problems: Bowel and bladder problems are common in people with severe forms spina bifida because the nerves that control these functions have been damaged. In fact, 97% of patients with myelomeningocele have bladder and bowel incontinence. Repeated urinary tract infections are also common, which can increase the risk of kidney damage. Fortunately, innovative techniques, such as clean intermittent catheterization, can help eliminate this risk.
Orthopaedic problems, such as scoliosis, kyphosis, and clubfoot: Scoliosis and kyphosis are conditions characterized by abnormal curves in the spine. Scoliosis is an abnormal sideways curve, and kyphosis can refer to an abnormal hunchback-style curve. Clubfoot is another common orthopaedic complication, and it’s a condition that causes the foot to be twisted out of its normal position.
Skin problems: People with spina bifida may experience numbness, inability to feel pain, and skin ulcers caused by the inability to shift their weight on their own. Many people with spina bifida also have latex allergies, possibly due to the large amount of latex they are exposed to early in life during surgeries and other procedures.
Spinal cord tethering: Spinal cord tethering occurs when the spinal cord remains attached to the surrounding skin, preventing it from growing normally. The spinal cord then becomes stretched and damaged resulting in progressive neurological, urological, or orthopaedic problems. This is usually treated surgically during a child's first year of life..
Chiari malformation: Most people with severe cases of spina bifida are also born with a Chiari malformation, which causes brain dysfunction. There are several types of Chiari malformation, but the one closely connected to spina bifida is Type II. In Type II Chiari malformation, brain tissue pushes through the foramen magnum, which is the opening through which your spinal cord passes.
Learning disabilities: Many patients with spina bifida also experience various forms of learning problems including attention deficit disorders, and problems with language, reading, and math.