by Christine Haran
When a woman is pregnant, her thoughts tend to focus on the baby's name, the color of the nursery and preparing the home for the new arrival.
Most parents-to-be never have to worry about their child being born with a birth defect, but a little bit of planning can prevent some forms of these diseases.
Understanding your risk of having a child with a birth defect can help prepare you for the difficult decisions that come with the diagnosis.
Spina bifida is the most common form of a type of birth deformity called a neural tube defect. When these birth defects occur, the structure inside the embryo that develops into the brain and spinal cord, the neural tube, does not develop normally.
Spina bifida, for example, causes the backbone to develop irregularly and may even affect the spinal cord. This birth defect is one of the most common, affecting approximately 1,300 babies in the Unites States every year.
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1. Occulta. This is the mildest form of spina bifida. In fact, occulta means without symptoms, so in this form of spina bifida, one or more vertebrae in the back are malformed but they rarely cause any disability.
2. Closed neural tube defect. In this type of spine bifida, there are no openings in the spine, which are the hallmarks of more serious forms of this defect. Closed neural tube defects, instead include small defects in which the spinal cord has an abnormal formation of fat, bone or membrane on its surface. The effects of these deformities range from few or no symptoms to incomplete paralysis.
3. Meningocele. With this type, the meninges, or the lining of the spinal cord, poke through openings in the spine and become fluid-filled cysts known as meningoceles. Symptoms can vary from none to partial paralysis, but these cysts can sometimes be removed with surgery, allowing the child to develop normally.
4. Myelomeningocele. This is the most severe form of spina bifida. It is caused when the actual nerves of the spinal cord (as opposed to just the lining) poke though openings in the spine. Surgery can repair some of this damage and prevent infection, but babies with this defect often have some degree of paralysis depending on the location of the problem.
It's not clear as to what causes spina bifida, but scientists believe a combination of genes, nutrition and environmental factors come into play.
The one clear link that has been discovered is folic acid intake. Consuming enough of this form of vitamin B may help to prevent birth defects including spina bifida. Prenatal vitamins that are prescribed by a doctor will almost always contain folic acid along with other vitamins essential for your baby's development.
Over the nine months of pregnancy, your doctor will likely perform various screening tests. Many of these are meant to check on the health of the embryo as well as look for potential birth defects. Keep in mind, however, that none of these tests can determine the severity of a birth defect.
Ultrasound can sometimes be used to detect the spinal cord and vertebrae abnormalities found in spina bifida. Also, a blood test can detect levels of a protein, called alpha-fetoprotein. Abnormally high levels of this protein in the mother's bloodstream can indicate a neural tube defect.