Currently, there is no cure for spina bifida, but there are a number of treatments available to help manage the disease and prevent complications.
In some cases, if diagnosed before birth, the baby can undergo surgery while still in the womb in an effort to repair or minimize the spinal defect. The procedure is performed by fetal surgeons after an extensive risk assessment of mother and fetus.
Treatment after birth may include ongoing surgery, medications and physical and behavioral therapy, depending on the type and severity of the defect, your child's age and overall health as well as personal preferences.
Children with the mildest form of the disease, spina bifida occulta, usually don't need treatment.
Children with spina bifida meningocele typically can be treated without surgery. However, they may develop complications, such as bladder problems and hydrocephalus, or excessive fluid in the brain. If untreated, it may cause movement disorders or mental retardation.
Fluid can be drained from the brain through a surgical procedure that uses a special tube called a shunt. The shunt runs under the skin into the abdomen and the fluid passes into the child's body without harm.
Myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, generally requires surgery to correct the spinal defect and prevent infections, further injury or trauma to the exposed spinal cord and nerves.
The majority of babies with myelomeningocele also develop hydrocephalus, which requires treatment. Children with this form of spina bifida may also develop a progressive tethering of the spinal cord, in which the spinal cord and vertebrae don't stretch and grow normally as the child grows. This may cause loss of muscle function in the legs, bowel and bladder.
Surgery on the spinal cord may be performed to help restore function. Children with bladder function problems are treated by a urologist, who may suggest catheterization, in which a small tube is inserted into the bladder to help drain urine.
Many children with spina bifida experience partial or complete paralysis and need devices such as braces, crutches or wheelchairs. These children work with specialists in orthopedics and physical therapy to learn special muscle-strengthening exercises. Some children may also need surgery on the hips, legs and feet.
It's also common for children with spina bifida to develop an allergy to latex, or natural rubber, which may be caused by early exposure during surgeries and medical procedures. If your child has this allergy, avoid exposing him or her to latex products, such as baby bottle nipples, pacifiers and balloons. There are latex-free options for many products.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.