Spina Bifida Occulta: Symptoms and Causes

It is critical to supplement with folic acid in the early weeks of pregnancy to prevent spina bifida.

Reduce Risk of Spina Bifida

Spina Bifida Occulta is a type of Spina Bifida which is a condition that affects the spine and develops while a baby is still in utero. It is a malformation or a birth defect of the spine, wherein some of the vertebrae or the bones of the spine fail to form and fully close. Categorized as a neural tube defect, Spina Bifida is the malformation of the neural tube affecting the embryonic structure responsible in developing a baby’s brain, its spinal cord and the tissues surrounding it.


Types of Spina Bifida

In Latin, Spina =“ spine “ and Bifida = “ split “– If a baby has spina bifida, it’s spine and spinal column fail to develop properly. The defect or the “split “ can range from a mild to severe. Depending on the type of defect, the size and location it can foretell the symptoms and complications for the child.

There are 3 different types of Spina Bifida. In severe cases, this may cause the spinal column to be fully exposed. However, in some 20 % of people afflicted with this condition, they may not even be aware they have it because there are no visible signs or symptoms that are felt.

  • Spina Bifida Occulta – In its Latin translation, Occulta = “ hidden, secret”. This is the mildest form of spina bifida which causes a small gap or split in one or more vertebrae in the spine. Children grow up to be adults never knowing that they have such a deformity because there are no visible physical symptoms of deformity. Mostly, this defect is unintentionally discovered upon image testing performed for an individual for a different cause or health condition.
  • Meningocele – This type of spina bifida causes the membranes surrounding the spinal cord to push through a gap in the vertebrae. This will form a protruding sac filled with fluid build up.
  • Myelomeningocele – Also known as open spina bifida in its severe form, this condition leaves the spinal canal open along the vertebrae in the lower back with tissues and nerves exposed. Spinal cord membranes and nerves are also exposed at birth that comes with a protruding sac.that is sometimes covered by skin. Mobility issues and infection are also experienced by those with open spina bifida.


What Causes Spina Bifida Occulta?

Medical studies and research have yet to fully uncover the real cause for spina bifida. But being that this condition occurs while a baby is in utero, spinal cord defects are mostly attributed to these factors :

  • FOLIC ACID DEFICIENCY – Vitamin B-9 or Folate is crucial to the development of a baby while in the womb. To ensure a woman gets sufficient folate, she may take its synthetic supplement form known as folic acid. If a woman has plans of getting pregnant, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises a daily supplement of 400mcg of folic acid even before conception and during pregnancy to minimize the risk of spinal defects.
  • FAMILY HISTORY – Any couple planning for pregnancy should look into their history for neural birth defects as this is another risk factor to consider. Although in mild cases of spina bifida occulta this does not always hold true. If a woman has given birth to a child with spina bifida it is best to seek advice from her doctor as the risk is much greater for couples with previous children afflicted with this condition.
  • DIABETES – Diabetic women with unregulated blood sugar are considered high risk for giving birth to babies with spina bifida.
  • OBESITY – Neural tube birth defects are highly likely to occur in obese women.
  • MEDICATIONS – Certain medications can also pose risks of neural tube defects in pregnant women who take anti-seizure meds as they seem to affect the body’s capacity to use folic acid.


What Are the Symptoms to Look For?

Most people with spina bifida occulta are undiagnosed due to its mild to almost invisible symptoms. But some people with spina bifida occulta may exhibit these mild symptoms because the gaps in the spinal cord are protected and unexposed. Here are some relative symptoms that can be attributed to this condition:

Back pain Scoliosis or curvature of the spine
Bladder infections Inability to control the bladder /bowels
Weakness in legs Sleep disorder breathing
Mobility issues Pain or reduced feeling in the legs
Deformed feet/legs Hairy patch on the skin of the back
A pad of fat along the lower back Dimpled or dented patch of skin in the crease of the buttocks

Can It Be Treated?

There is no known cure for spina bifida occulta but there are situations when medical intervention can be done to untether the spinal cord via surgical procedure by a neurosurgeon. Since nerves are positioned in a complex way around the spinal cord, there is a risk of damage to some nerves. The surgery also does not guarantee successfully removing or reducing symptoms. From this, some opt to approach treatment in a different direction depending on the severity of symptoms. If the complications present themselves more pronounced in certain areas, another specialist can treat the symptoms.


Planning pregnancy is the best route to reducing the risk of birth defects in babies. Once a couple has decided to start actively trying to conceive, women should begin daily supplementation of folic acid at least once a month before conception and all throughout her entire pregnancy. It is most critical to supplement the body with folic acid in the early weeks of pregnancy to prevent spina bifida.

Natural folate found in food is not easily absorbed by the body hence vitamin B-9 supplements are necessary to prevent spina bifida along with other defects such as cleft lip, cleft palate, and congenital heart defects. Including food rich in folate or fortified with folic acid in one’s diet is also beneficial. These can be found in legumes, citrus fruit and juices, eggs, and dark green veggies. Parents with spina bifida are advised to pump up on folic acid before conceiving pending consultation with your doctor.

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