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Spina bifida or myelomeningocele refers to a defect that occurs when the spinal canal does not close properly, affecting the spinal cord and vertebrae. This defect usually develops within the first three weeks of pregnancy, often before women even know they are pregnant. It can occur anywhere along the spinal cord, but is most common in the lumbar and sacral areas of the lower back.

The severity of each case of spina bifida varies. Myelomeningocele is the most common and the most severe form of spina bifida. It occurs when the backbone and spinal canal do not close properly before birth and parts of the spinal cord and nerves come through the opening. Common complications of spina bifida include mobility problems, bladder and bowel control problems, and other neurological conditions that are associated with spina bifida, such as hydrocephalus or Chiari malformation.

Spina Bifida patientThere is currently no cure for spina bifida, but with proper care and treatment, most children can survive into adulthood and lead healthy lives. UNC Pediatric Neurosurgery works closely with obstetricians, maternal fetal medicine specialists, neonatologists, urologists, orthopedists, and physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists to provide high quality care to patients with spina bifida starting with the initial diagnosis and treatment as a newborn and continuing throughout their lives. Many of these children are followed at the UNC Spina Bifida Clinic.

Fetal Surgery for Spina Bifida

UNC is the only hospital in North Carolina to offer fetal surgery for spina bifida, and we are one of only a few hospitals in the country to offer a fetal surgery program. The fetal care program at UNC is a multidisciplinary group that includes specialists with extensive experience in the care of pregnancies and in the treatment of children with spina bifida. The program is coordinated by the UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health.

Spina bifida is usually detected when the infant is in utero during routine ultrasounds or blood work. In some cases, our pediatric neurosurgeons are able to perform fetal surgery on an unborn infant during the second trimester of pregnancy to repair the open neural tube defects with the goal of minimizing the spinal defect and lessening neurological complications associated with spina bifida. Fetal surgery reduces the chance of developing hydrocephalus for a significant percentage of children with spina bifida.

To learn more, watch the video below and visit the UNC Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology website to read more about fetal surgery for spina bifida.

Postnatal Surgery for Spina Bifida

Spina Bifida illustrationWhen fetal surgery is not an option, UNC Pediatric Neurosurgery offers postnatal surgery for children with spina bifida. In most cases, surgery is performed on a newborn within two days of birth. Talk with your care team to find out if fetal surgery or postnatal surgery for spina bifida is right for your child.

We offer pediatric neurosurgery clinics in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Wilmington. Visit our pediatric neurosurgery clinic locations page for the clinic or hospital nearest you or call 984-974-4175 to schedule an appointment.