Spina bifida is a congenital disorder in which the spinal column never fully develops, leaving the spinal cord, brain stem, and vital nerves susceptible to damage and infection. When doctors recognize a severe case of spina bifida at birth, the infant is immediately prepared for surgery to close the spinal column and preserve as much nerve tissue as possible. Ongoing spina bifida treatment depends on the severity of a patient's condition, but usually includes a combination of physical therapy, medications, and small corrective surgeries throughout an individual's life.
A baby who is born with spina bifida typically needs to undergo a series of emergency surgical procedures within the first few hours of life. Surgeons try to prevent infections and nerve damage by realigning exposed spinal cord tissue, covering the cord with muscle tissue, and fusing the spinal column together at the opening. After initial spina bifida treatment, the baby is placed in an intensive care unit so doctors can monitor recovery and perform a series of tests to check for other serious health problems.
Many infants who have spina bifida also suffer from hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. Excess fluid around the brain needs to be immediately drained to prevent swelling and further damage to the brain and spinal cord. The most common hydrocephalus-related spina bifida treatment involves inserting a shunt into the skull that redirects fluid into the abdominal cavity, where it can be easily absorbed by body tissue. Additional corrective surgeries may be needed if other defects exist in the brain, spine, or elsewhere in the body.
Infants who survive into early childhood normally need to receive ongoing spina bifida treatment. Any nerve damage that is suffered before birth is permanent, and many children are unable to control their legs, bladders, or bowels. A developing child who has some feeling in his or her legs may be fitted with leg braces or crutches and scheduled for regular physical therapy sessions to learn how to walk. Patients with bladder and bowel problems may need to use catheters or undergo additional surgery to improve functioning.
Additional spina bifida treatment can vary on a case-by-case basis. Children, adolescents, and adults living with the condition usually take daily medications to manage pain and inflammation. Periodic surgeries to gradually straighten a curved spine may be needed throughout a person's teenage years. Patients who are determined to overcome their physical disabilities and remain independent can usually do so by engaging in intensive physical therapy and maintaining positive outlooks on life.