Causes & Risk Factors Of Spina Bifida

September 13, 2023

Spina bifida is a type of congenital disability caused by an improperly formed spinal column. Babies with spina bifida are born with a gap in their spinal bones that allows the spinal cord to protrude. In some cases, it can be so severe the nerves of the spinal cord protrude through the child's skin entirely, which can lead to many problematic issues like deformity, paralysis, and muscular weakness. Though spina bifida still is not fully understood, medical experts have found certain things can increase a person's chances of developing spina bifida. A pregnant woman with one of these five risk factors may be more likely to give birth to a child with spina bifida.

Lack Of Folic Acid

This is the leading preventable cause of spina bifida. Folic acid, also called vitamin B9, is an important vitamin needed for a baby to develop properly. Without enough folate or folic acid, the neural tube that runs through the spinal column cannot properly develop. Even some women who regularly take folic acid can end up with a folate deficiency. Things like drinking alcohol to heavily or having a condition preventing folate absorption can result in a lack of folic acid. Even if a woman starts getting enough folate after conception, a previous deficiency can cause problems. Pregnant women need at least 0.4 milligrams per day of folic acid for at least three months before conception to keep a lack of folic acid from causing spina bifida. Fortunately, it is easy for most women to get this level of folic acid because the government requires many companies to enrich their products with folate. Women who eat whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, leafy green vegetables, and dried beans typically get enough folate.

Keep reading to understand the causes and risk factors of spina bifida.

Family History Of Spina Bifida

Like many other congenital conditions, there does seem to be a genetic factor in spina bifida. If a woman was born with a neural tube defect, she is more likely to have a child born with spina bifida. Even if the mother and father are both perfectly healthy, their risk of having a child with spina bifida increases if they already have one or more children with the condition. The majority of spina bifida cases, however, are not due to an inherited genetic condition, so this is not something the average parent needs to worry about, but families who do already have a history of spina bifida may benefit from genetic counseling and extra care during childbirth. It can be tricky because patients with mild spina bifida might not be aware they have the condition, but it still increases their chance of passing it to a child. Getting spina bifida due to family history is typically not preventable in any way.

Continue reading to learn about more of the causes and risk factors of spina bifida.

Certain Medications

Any time a woman is pregnant, the pills she takes can end up affecting her unborn child. One of the many ways medications can harm a developing fetus is by causing spina bifida to occur. The most common class of drugs to cause spina bifida are anti-seizure medications, but some other types of drugs can also cause issues. Medications that cause spina bifida seem to be problematic because they alter the body's ability to absorb certain nutrients. Without the ability to absorb folic acid, a pregnant mother will be deficient regardless of how much she eats. This lack of folate can then keep the baby's neural tube from developing properly, so spina bifida ends up occurring. Because certain medications can increase the chances of a child ending up with spina bifida, it is essential to speak to your doctor before taking any while pregnant.

Continue reading for another link to spina bifida.


Doctors are not exactly aware of the reason obesity is linked to spina bifida, but statistics show there is a decent correlation between the two conditions. The weight of the baby does not matter, but an obese mother does increase the risk of neural tube congenital disabilities in the fetus. This increase is startlingly high. Babies born to obese women are twice as likely to get spina bifida as babies born to women at a healthy weight. Having a body mass index of thirty or higher greatly increases chances of spina bifida. This increased risk of spina bifida is present even if the mother is not obese during pregnancy. Being obese in the months leading up to pregnancy can also affect the chances of spina bifida.

Continue reading to discover another cause of spina bifida.

Maternal Diabetes

Having unusually high blood sugar spikes can end up causing spina bifida to develop in infants. The precise mechanisms that result in this condition due to high blood sugar are not known, but it seems the abnormal sugar metabolism affects the baby's development in some way. It can be a particularly common cause of spina bifida because many pregnant women have gestational diabetes, which is abnormally high blood sugar that does not happen outside of pregnancy. Risks are much higher if blood sugar levels are elevated in early pregnancy instead of later pregnancy. Because this can cause spina bifida, it is important for expectant mothers to monitor their blood sugar levels carefully. Avoiding sugary foods and taking any prescribed insulin can be a huge help.

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