Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
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Spina Bifida Open Defect

What is myelomeningocele

Download a PDF about this condition

Myelomeningocele (MY-ell-oh-men-NING-guh-seal) is the most severe form of spina bifida. It is a birth defect in which the spine does not fully close around the spinal cord. It protrudes through the opening of the spinal column and may be enclosed in a fluid-filled sac.

Spina bifida belongs to a class of birth defects called neural tube defects that affect the brain and spine. The exposed spinal cord is susceptible to injury, which may result in weakness and paralysis below the opening. More facts about spina bifida.

What are its effects?

The effects of myelomeningocele vary, depending on its location on the spine and its severity. It may lead to weakness and/or paralysis in the area below the defect, partial or complete loss of bladder and bowel control, or difficulty walking without assistance. Individuals with myelomeningocele are also susceptible to hydrocephalus, a life-threatening buildup of fluid in the brain.

How is myelomeningocele treated?

Treatment involves prenatal surgery to close the opening on the baby's spine. If there is a danger of hydrocephalus, a shunt, or tube, is inserted into the brain to drain the excess fluid into the abdominal cavity.

How widespread is the condition?

Myelomeningocele occurs about three to four times in every 10,000 births.

Can women reduce their risk for conceiving a child who will develop a neural tube defect?

To reduce their risk of conceiving a child with myelomeningocele or another neural tube defect, the U.S. Public Health Service and CDC recommend that all women of childbearing age consume 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid daily. Found in supplements or fortified foods, it is the synthetic form of the vitamin folate.

Women who have had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect are advised to take 4,000 mcg (4 mg) of folic acid every day for one month before they start trying to get pregnant and every day for the first three months of pregnancy.

In 2009, medical studies found that women with low levels of vitamin B12 (found in meat, eggs, and other foods of animal origin) were at increased risk for having a child with a neural tube defect.

Information on sources of vitamin B12 and recommended daily allowances for the vitamin is available from the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.

For other ways to reduce the risk of myelomeningocele and other types of spina bifida, visit "Causes and Prevention."

Contact the Fetal Center at (615) 343-4673

Last Edited: March 15, 2017
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