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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Lim Sock Ling and Dr Angelica L Dumapit on September 6, 2022

Tips To Help Ease Your Child’s Spina Bifida Symptoms

It can be heartbreaking to learn that your baby was born with spina bifida, but there are many things you can do to improve their quality of life using Traditional Chinese Medicine remedies.

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Spina bifida is a spinal cord defect that is usually apparent at birth. Approximately 166,000 people in the United States have it and it’s the most common permanently disabling birth defect.

Medical tests are available to determine if your baby has it. However, most defects occur before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.

Most children with spina bifida will need to undergo surgery, but your child may need continued support as they grow to manage symptoms.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the different types of spina bifida, what causes them, and how to manage the condition.

What Is Spina Bifida?

The term spina bifida means “split spine.” It’s a neural tube defect (NTD) that occurs when a baby’s neural tube does not close properly.

The condition usually occurs during the first 28 days of a woman’s pregnancy. This is normally when the neural tube forms.

According to the Spina Bifida Association, the condition is known as a “snowflake condition” because no two cases are the same.

The severity of the condition depends on the size and location of the defect.

Types of spina bifida

This chart shows the different types of spina bifida and how they present on the spine.

There are three primary types:

  1. Spina Bifida Occulta (SBO): Most people do not know they have this condition. In fact, 15% of healthy people have it without knowing it. SBO does not usually cause harm and has no visible symptoms. Most people find out they have it when they have an x-ray done on their back for other reasons.
  2. Meningocele: This condition occurs when part of the spinal cord protrudes through the spine. Visible symptoms include a sac on the spine that is filled with nerve fluid. People with this condition may have some disabilities, but there is usually no nerve damage.
  3. Myelomeningocele (Meningomyelocele) or Spina Bifida Cystica: This is the most severe form. It occurs when the spinal cord and nerves protrude through a spinal opening, causing disabilities and nerve damage. Approximately 70% to 90% of children with this condition may also develop brain disabilities as the spinal cord is unable to drain fluid properly.

Other types may include Occult Spinal Dysraphism (OSD), Lipomyelomeningocele, Fatty Filum Terminale, Split Cord Malformation, and Terminal Myelocystocele.

Causes And Symptoms Of Spina Bifida

From a Western medicine perspective, the causes are unknown and may range from a complex mixture of genetic and environmental factors.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Physician Lim Sock Ling, from a TCM viewpoint, “Spina bifida is thought to result from a combination of genetic, nutritional, and environmental risk factors. This includes having a family history of neural tube defects and folate (vitamin B9) deficiency. TCM believes Kidney Deficiency is associated with congenital anomalies.”

Physician Lim noted that the following symptoms may occur:

  • Physical presentations: A tuft of hair, a small dimple, or a birthmark on a newborn’s skin may suggest an underlying spinal cord issue that can be discovered with MRI or spinal ultrasound. 
  • Bladder and bowel: Bowel incontinence and urinary incontinence can be a sign of the condition.
  • Symptoms in the lower limbs: This includes weakness, coldness, loss of sensation, or muscle shrinkage.
  • Impotence 
  • Deformities: This may include hydrocephalus, Chiari deformities, scoliosis, or congenital hip dislocation.
  • Shunt malfunction: This includes being drowsy, lethargic, having a headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. 

Treatment Options For Spina Bifida

Treatment for spina bifida depends on the type and severity of the condition. Usually, Spina Bifida Occulta typically does not require treatment. 

Children with Meningomyelocele usually need surgery within one to three days of birth. This saves the spinal cord from more damage and also prevents infection.

Children with Meningocele are not paralyzed but may still require surgery as part of their treatment. Most children with this condition grow up without complications.

If your child has OSD, they should see a surgeon to determine the best treatment option. He or she can help determine if surgery is needed to keep the brain and nerves from becoming damaged as your child grows.

TCM Ways To Manage Spina Bifida

If your child has been diagnosed with spinal bifida, you can use TCM remedies, such as herbal remedies, pediatric tuina, and acupuncture, to help improve their quality of life.

Herbal remedies

According to Physician Lim, Cordyceps benefits Lung and Kidney symptoms and would be beneficial for spina bifida. 

Studies show that there are five commonly used herbs that may help improve the hemorrhage and edema seen in the injured spinal cord. These include Danshen, Ginkgo, Ginseng, Notoginseng, and Astragali Radix.

Tuina massage

According to Physician Lim, “For children, pediatric tuina would help strengthen the Kidneys, warm yang, and dispel Cold. For adults, TCM tuina helps improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and relax the muscles to benefit spinal issues.” 

Acupuncture

Below are acupuncture points that are commonly used to manage symptoms in the following areas: 

  • Sphincter: Zhi Bian (BL 54), Qi Hai (RN CV 6), Zhong Ji (RN CV 3), Zu San Li (ST 36), and San Yin Jiao (SP 6)
  • Malfunction of the lower limbs: Huan Tiao (GB 30), Yang Ling Quan (GB 34), Zu San Li (ST 36), and Cheng Jin (BL 56)
  • Pain in the sacral or tail bone area: Da Chang Shu (BL 25), Guan Yuan Shu (BL 26), Pang Guang Shu (BL 28), Bao Huang (BL 53), and Wei Zhong (BL 40)

Tips For Managing Spina Bifida In Adults

Physician Lim stated, “Be patient while undergoing treatment. TCM’s principle of holism would benefit the child not only in spina bifida but for the entire system of well-being.”

“In adults with spina bifida, shunt malfunction is an area of key concern in relation to outcomes and mortality. They also face complications from devices, grafts, or implants, as well as higher risk in various aspects, such as anxiety and depression, back pain, osteomyelitis, osteoarthritis, musculoskeletal complaints, chronic skin ulcers, sleep apnea, obesity, hypertension, and prevalence of cancer and UTI. Hence, the approach to managing spina bifida in adults would focus on rehabilitation so as to improve health and functional quality of life,” she concluded.

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