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What is a Meningomyelocele?

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  • Written By: Jacquelyn Gilchrist
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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Meningomyelocele is a type of birth defect, and may also be called myelomeningocele. It causes the backbone to fail to close before birth. This results in a visible sac on the newborn’s back. The spinal cord protrudes out, and nerves and tissues may also be exposed.

This birth defect is a form of spina bifida. Spina bifida is a group of birth defects involving the brain and spinal cord. In normal pregnancies, the two sides of the fetus’s spine fuse together during the first month of pregnancy. This serves to cover the spinal cord, nerves, and surrounding tissues. An infant born with meningomyelocele does not develop as he normally should in this regard.

If an infant suffers from meningomyelocele, the obvious sign — a sac on the back — should be immediately visible. The infant may also suffer from partial or complete paralysis, or a lack of sensation, as well as weakness and the loss of bladder and bowel control. He may also suffer from other birth defects, such as clubfoot, or abnormal legs or feet. The baby may also have hydrocephalus, which is an excess fluid in the skull.

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Pregnant women can undergo prenatal screening during the second trimester of pregnancy to help determine if their child might have a birth defect. A blood test, called a quadruple screen, will check for meningomyelocele and other conditions, such as Down syndrome. Additional tests, such as an ultrasound or amniocentesis, may be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Amniocentesis is a test that analyzes the amniotic fluid that cradles the fetus in the womb.

A post-birth diagnosis of meningomyelocele will typically include x-rays of the spinal area. A doctor may also conduct a neurological exam to check for nerve function. This involves observing how the newborn baby reacts to pinpricks on the body.

Parents with an infant suffering from meningomyelocele are usually carefully instructed as to how to handle and position their child to avoid damage to the spinal cord. The doctor will discuss special needs in regards to feeding and bathing. Due to the higher risk of infections, antibiotics may be prescribed as a preventative measure.

If the baby suffers from hydrocephalus, he may need a shunt to drain excess fluid. The child’s doctor will likely recommend surgery to correct meningomyelocele while the child is still very young. Surgery may help repair the birth defect.

The child will need follow-up care throughout his lifetime. A doctor will need to monitor his development. If the child suffers from neurological problems, such as improper bladder or bowel function, further treatment, like using a catheter, may be required. Any muscle or joint problems may be alleviated with physical therapy and the support of a brace or wheelchair.

While it is unclear exactly what causes forms of spina bifida, it is thought that it may be a combination of factors. Environmental and genetic risk factors may contribute to meningomyelocele. A deficiency of folic acid, which is a B vitamin, is also likely. To help lower the risk of a birth defect, pregnant women should discuss folic acid needs with their doctor.

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