Spina Bifida

What is Spina Bifida?

By Emily Young

Spina Bifida translates to “cleft spine,” which means there is an incomplete closure in the spinal column. There are three different types of spina bifida, including Spina Bifida Occulta, Meningocele, and Myelomeningocele.

Spinia Bifida Occulta is the least severe of the three types, where there is an opening between one or more of the vertebrae without apparent damage to the spinal column. It is estimated that about 40% of Americans may have spina bifida occulta, but the experience of symptoms may be so mild that few of them know they have it.

Meningocele and Myelomeningocele are known together as “spina bifida manifesta,” and occur in about 1/1000 of births. 4% of children with spina bifida manifesta have the form of meningocele while 96% have myelomeningocele.

Meningocele means that the protective cover around the spinal cord, or meninges, has pushed out through the opening in the vertebrae and formed a sac called the “meningocele.” But, the spinal cord remains intact, there is rarely damage to the nerve pathway, and the condition can be repaired surgically.

Myelomeningocele is the most severe type of spina bifida, where a portion of the spinal cord protrudes through the back; some of these protruding sacs are covered by skin while other cases have exposed tissue and nerves.

What are the characteristics of spina bifida?

Myelomeningocele is the most severe form of spina bifida and will present obvious symptoms. These symptoms include muscle weakness, paralysis below the area of the spine where the spinal cleft is located, loss of sensation below the cleft, and loss of bowel and bladder control. Hydrocephalus occurs in 70%-90% of children with myelomeningocele, where fluid builds up in the brain and must be controlled by a surgical procedure called “shunting.” Without surgically implanting this drain, the fluid pressure will increase and can cause brain damage, seizures, or blindness.

What does spina bifida mean in the classroom?

With the advancement of medical diagnosis and surgical procedures, children with myelomeningocele who have shunts implanted to prevent hydrocephalus are now much more likely to survive. Therefore, knowledge about their condition and sensitivity to the series of operations they may endure away from class are important aspects of teaching them.

In addition to possibly being out of school for medical procedures related to the condition, spina bifida students may need training to learn to control their bowel and bladder or may require catheterization. Catheterization is distinguished by the legal system as a health requirement that needs to have support from special education or related services in order to have it incorporated into the school day.

Students with spina bifida might also experience learning problems due to the previous pressure on their brain via hydrocephalus. Symptoms may include difficulty paying attention, learning to read or do math, and communicating their feelings or ideas verbally.

Adaptations of the school equipment to make the school accessible to spina bifida students is required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Curriculum design should also be considered when making accommodations for these students. Such a physical impairment can have effects of a child’s socio-emotional development, and teachers should encourage the students independence, participation in classroom activities with nondisabled classmates, and feelings of success in their academic career.

For more information on spina bifida, please contact:

Spina Bifida Association of America
4590 MacArthur Boulevard, Suite 250
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 944-3285
Email: gro.aabs|aabs#gro.aabs|aabs
web: www.sbaa.org


1.) Young Scientists (2007). Is there folic acid in our flour? Retrieves July 29, 2007, from http://www.youngscientists.co.uk/Articles/ys_files/Folicacidinourflour.htm
2.) National Information Center for Children and Youth Disabilities (2005). Spina Bifida. Retrieved on June 25, 2005 from www.nichcy.org.