Health issues are different for each person with spina bifida. Open spina bifida (myelomeningocele)—in which the spinal cord is exposed—tends to cause more severe problems.1
Many infants born with spina bifida get extra fluid in and around the brain, a condition called hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. The extra fluid can cause swelling of the head, which may lead to brain injury.
Chiari II Malformation
The brains of most children with open spina bifida are positioned abnormally. The lower part of the brain rests farther down than normal, partially in the upper spinal canal. The cerebrospinal fluid can get blocked and cause hydrocephalus. While most affected children have no other symptoms, a few may have upper body weakness and trouble breathing and swallowing.
Tethered Spinal Cord
Typically, the bottom of the spinal cord floats freely in the spinal canal, but for many people with spina bifida, the spinal cord is attached to the spinal canal. Thus, the spinal cord stretches as a person grows, and this stretching can cause spinal nerve damage. The person might have back pain, scoliosis (crooked spine), weakness in the legs and feet, bladder or bowel control problems, and other issues.
Paralysis, Mobility Limitations
People with spina bifida high on the back (near the head, for instance) might not be able to move their legs. People with spina bifida low on the back (near the hips, for example) might have some leg mobility and be able to walk unassisted or with crutches, braces, or walkers.
Lack of Bladder and Bowel Control
People with spina bifida often cannot control their bladder and bowel movements. They also can develop urinary tract infections.
Many people with spina bifida—possibly three-quarters of those with the condition—are allergic to latex, or natural rubber. While researchers still don’t entirely understand why the rate in those with spina bifida is so high, some experts believe such an allergy can be caused by frequent exposure to latex, which is common for people with spina bifida who have shunts and have had many surgeries.2
While at least 80% of children with open spina bifida do not have learning deficiencies, some do have learning problems.3
Some people with open spina bifida have additional physical and psychological conditions, including digestive, vision, sexual, social, and emotional problems; obesity; and depression.