What is spinal dysraphism?

Spinal dysraphism (also called spina bifida) is a condition in which a baby’s spine and spinal cord do not form properly during pregnancy. The spine and spinal cords are then exposed to the surrounding environment inside or outside the body.

Spinal dysraphism is a general term that includes both visible and invisible incomplete formations. In some babies, the incomplete formation is visible on the skin’s surface. In others, the incomplete formation cannot be seen under the skin. Spinal dysraphism affects about 7 out of every 10,000 live births. It is slightly more common in females than males.

What causes spinal dysraphism?

Doctors are still learning about the causes of spinal dysraphism. Spinal dysraphism is not anyone’s fault and it can happen at random. In some cases, spinal dysraphism is hereditary (passed down through families).

What are the different types of spinal dysraphism?

There are 4 types of spinal dysraphism. Each type is listed below from least to most severe.

  • Spina bifida occulta: When one or more vertebra (bones in the spine) are malformed (not formed correctly), and a layer of skin covers the opening in the vertebrae.
  • Closed neural tube defects: When the spinal cord has malformations of fat, bone or the meninges (membranes that line the skull and spinal cord).
  • Meningocele: When spinal fluid and meninges come through an opening in the vertebrae, but the malformation does not contain spinal nerves.
  • Myelomeningocele: When the spinal cord is exposed through the opening of the spine and contains spinal nerves.

Which medical conditions can go along with spinal dysraphism?

Whether your baby has other medical conditions depends on how severe the spinal dysraphism is and where it is located along the spine. Once your baby is born, they will be closely followed by pediatric specialists who care for various medical conditions.

Medical conditions that can go along with spinal dysraphism include:

  • Chiari malformation (a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, or top of the spinal cord)
  • Hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid in the ventricles, or cavities, in the brain
  • Seizures
  • Urinary tract issues (which include trouble emptying their bladder and frequent urinary tract infections
  • Constipation or stool accidents
  • Orthopaedic (muscle or bone) problems, such as trouble walking or not being able to walk
  • Learning disabilities

Rev. 2/2021. MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions.