What Kind of Complications Can Spina Bifida Cause?

Complications caused by spina bifida can range from minor physical problems to severe physical and mental disabilities. However, most people with spina bifida have normal intelligence.

How severe the complications are depend on the size and location of the malformation, whether or not skin covers it, whether or not spinal nerves are exposed, and which spinal nerves are involved. Most of the time all the nerves that are located below the malformation, are affected. This means that the higher the malformation is on the child’s back, the greater the amount of nerve damage and loss of muscle function and sensation.

In addition to loss of feeling and paralysis, another complication associated with spina bifida is Chiari II malformation – a rare condition (but common in children with myelomeningocele) in which the brainstem and the cerebellum, or rear portion of the brain, push downward into the spinal canal or neck area. This condition can lead to squeezing of the spinal cord and cause a variety of symptoms including difficulties with eating, swallowing and breathing; choking; and arm stiffness.

Chiari II malformation may also cause a condition called hydrocephalus. This means there is an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. (Cerebrospinal fluid is a clear liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord). The buildup of fluid puts damaging pressure on the brain. Hydrocephalus is commonly treated by surgically implanting a shunt – a hollow tube – which is placed in the ventricle of the brain, exits the skull and then tunnels under the skin to a place the fluid can exit, most commonly the abdominal cavity.

Some newborns with myelomeningocele may develop meningitis, an infection in the meninges. Meningitis can also occur when a shunt, placed for treatment of hydrocephalus, becomes infected. Meningitis may cause brain injury and can be life-threatening.

Because of the complications above (hydrocephalus and meningitis) or because in some cases of spina bifida, there is also abnormal development of the brain, some children with myelomeningocele may have learning disabilities (problems with language and reading, and trouble learning math), difficulties in focus (similar to that seen in ADHD), and, in rare cases, intellectual disability (global reduction in intellectual function).

In addition to challenges with mobility and learning, many children with spina bifida have difficulties with bowel and bladder function, latex and certain food allergies, skin problems such as pressure ulcers, orthopedic concerns and digestive conditions. Obesity and early development of puberty can be seen in association with spina bifida. Depression, anxiety and concerns about sexual function may occur as children with spina bifida get older.

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Mayo Clinic
Spina Bifida Complications