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Spina bifida is a type of disorder known as a neural tube defect, in which there is abnormal development of the spine. The condition can vary in severity, and, in the most serious cases, a large opening in the back leaves the nerves of the spinal cord unprotected and outside the body. Hydrocephalus is a disorder in which there is too much of the liquid which is normally found around the brain, known as cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF. Spina bifida and hydrocephalus are connected because babies who are born with the most severe form of spina bifida frequently have hydrocephalus as well.
The causes of spina bifida and hydrocephalus are not fully understood. Certain factors are known to be associated with an increased risk of having a baby with these types of birth defects. Eating too little of a vitamin known as folic acid, which is found in cereals and green, leafy vegetables, is known to be associated with spina bifida. Women who are obese or have diabetes have a greater chance of giving birth to a child with the condition. Some drugs used in the treatment of epilepsy increase the risk, and a woman who has had one baby with spina bifida has a higher chance of having another with the disorder.
Treatment of spina bifida and hydrocephalus generally involves a team of health specialists. Taking place soon after birth, the first step usually consists of surgery to repair the spinal defect. The exposed spinal cord tissue is placed inside the body and the vertebral bones are closed over it, together with skin and muscles. Recent surgical advances have made it possible to carry out this surgery while the baby is inside the womb, although the results are still being evaluated. Hydrocephalus is managed using tubes known as shunts, which are placed in the brain to drain cerebrospinal fluid into other areas of the body, such as the abdomen.
The current outlook for babies born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus is much more positive than it once was. With treatment, babies are expected to survive into adulthood. Many will have normal intelligence, although there may be certain areas in which learning difficulties are present, such as understanding written words. While some children may be capable of walking independently, this does not remain possible in all cases, and sometimes it becomes necessary to use a wheelchair in adult life. Even so, many are able to meet the challenges of the condition and lead independent and satisfying lives.