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Neural Tube Defects

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Signs, Symptoms and Complications

Signs and symptoms of neural tube defects vary from person to person and can change over time. Spina bifida, one of the two most common neural tube defects, can lead to severe physical and mental disabilities, but occasionally there are no symptoms or only minor disabilities. Health issues will vary for each individual. With the right care, babies born with spina bifida can grow up to reach their full potential.

People with spina bifida may develop tethered cord syndrome. This occurs when the spinal cord becomes attached to bone or skin (such as scar tissue) and is unable to flex and move. The cord becomes stretched and can lead to nerve damage. In children, it can lead to spine deformities such as scoliosis. Surgery to untether the cord can prevent further damage but is not likely to correct nerve or tissue damage that has already occurred.

Babies born with myelomeningocele (a form of spina bifida) may experience hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain. These children may also develop meningitis, an infection in the tissues surrounding the brain. Usually, a surgeon will implant a shunt to drain the fluid as needed. Additional problems such as learning disabilities may arise later.

People with spina bifida in the upper portion of the spine may be paralyzed, but those who have a defect in the lower portion of the spine may be able to walk or stand on their own or with the aid of crutches or braces. Urinary tract complications and constipated bowels are common among people with spina bifida, and skin problems can arise due to a lack of sensitivity in the lower extremities. Children with spina bifida may also have latex allergies as well as higher rates of depression and obesity.

Life expectancy for babies born with anencephaly, a neural tube defect where the forebrain or cerebrum does not form, is typically very short.

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