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Spina bifida

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Spina bifida is the most common disabling birth defect in the United States. It is a type of neural tube defect, which are defects of the brain or spinal cord. Spina bifida happens when the spine of the fetus does not form properly during the first month of pregnancy. As a result, nerves controlling leg movements and other functions are damaged.

People with spina bifida have varying degrees of paralysis of the legs. They often need devices such as leg braces, crutches, or wheelchairs to get around. They may have urinary or bowel problems. Most people with spina bifida have normal intelligence, but some have a learning disability.

People with spina bifida also are at higher risk of latex allergy. Allergic reactions to latex can be life-threatening. So people with spina bifida should avoid any contact with latex. Latex can be found in many common medical and household items, including gloves, adhesive bandages (e.g., Band-Aids), condoms, rubber bands, and pacifiers.

Spina bifida can affect many aspects of life. But people with spina bifida are able to adapt their home and workplace to suit their specific needs.

The cause of spina bifida is not known. Experts think that both genes and environment play roles. We do know that getting enough folic acid during early pregnancy greatly lowers the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect. For this reason and because many pregnancies are unplanned, all sexually active women who are able to get pregnant should take 400 micrograms (mcg) to 800 micrograms (mcg) everyday. Women with spina bifida should talk to their doctors about how much folic acid they need.

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Content last updated: September 22, 2009.

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