Symptoms of spina bifida depend on the type of the disease and how severely the spinal cord and surrounding nerves are affected.
Occulta is the mildest form of the disease. Vertebrae are malformed but the spinal cord and its covering are undamaged. The condition typically doesn't cause disability or symptoms. About 5 to 10 percent of the population may have spina bifida occulta, but are unaware of it. In many cases, the only visible signs are an abnormal tuft of hair, birthmark or dimple at the defect.
Meningocele is more severe. The meninges — membranes that cover and protect the spinal cord — protrude from the spinal opening and form a fluid-filled sac visible on a baby's back. The sac may be covered by a thin layer of skin. Some babies have few or no symptoms, while others experience complications, such as partial paralysis and urinary and bowel dysfunction.
Myelomeningocele is the most severe form of the disease. The meninges and spinal cord are exposed through the opening in the spine. Babies born with this condition may develop a variety of health problems, including partial or complete paralysis below the spinal cord, urinary and bowel dysfunction, hydrocephalus or excessive fluid in the brain and mental retardation, as well as impaired educational, social and psychological development.
Women who are pregnant with a fetus affected with spina bifida don't experience symptoms. However, there are several tests available to detect spina bifida before a baby is born.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.