What is myelomeningocele?

Myelomeningocele is one type of spina bifida, a spinal cord defect that develops during pregnancy. A baby is born with this condition. Though the defect is repaired during pregnancy or shortly after birth, the effects of the defect are lifelong.

A myelomeningocele is a sac containing part of the spinal cord, its covering, and spinal fluid that protrudes through a gap in the backbone that does not close properly. A myelomeningocele can occur anywhere along the spine. Babies who have a myelomeningocele higher on the spine usually have more severe symptoms than those who have it lower on the spine.

Infants with myelomeningocele usually need surgery shortly after birth.

What are the signs and symptoms of myelomeningocele?

In many cases, myelomeningocele is diagnosed before birth, during routine prenatal ultrasounds or lab tests. When it is not diagnosed prenatally, the fluid-filled sac is visible at birth. Sometimes the sac is covered by skin.

Babies born with myelomeningocele may have health problems because of the condition. These may include:

  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Problems with the legs and spine, including a curved spine (scoliosis) and growth problems
  • Weakness or loss of feeling in the legs
  • Problems with walking and mobility
  • A buildup of fluid in the skull, called hydrocephalus
  • Skin problems
  • Frequent infections
  • An allergy to latex

What causes myelomeningocele?

Myelomeningocele occurs early in pregnancy when the spinal cord does not develop properly. Doctors don’t know the exact cause of myelomeningocele, but it has been linked to low levels of folic acid (also called folate) in the body before and during early pregnancy. This is because folic acid is important for brain and spinal cord development.

How is myelomeningocele treated?

In most cases, babies born with myelomeningocele will need surgery shortly after birth to close the spine. If your baby has fluid in the skull, they may also need a shunt placed to help drain the fluid.

In addition, many children with myelomeningocele need ongoing care to help manage other health issues. Your medical team at Arkansas Children’s is experienced in treating all types of spina bifida, including myelomeningocele, and will work with you to come up with the best treatment plan for your child as they grow.