There is no cure for spina bifida. The nerve tissue that is damaged or lost cannot be repaired or replaced, nor can function be restored to the damaged nerves. Treatment depends on the type and severity of the disorder. Generally, children with the mild form need no treatment, although some may require surgery as they grow.
The key early priorities for treating myelomeningocele are to prevent infection from developing through the exposed nerves and tissue through the spine defect, and to protect the exposed nerves and structures from additional trauma. Typically, a child born with spina bifida will have surgery to close the defect and minimize the risk of infection or further trauma within the first few days of life.
Twenty to 50 percent of children with myelomeningocele develop a condition called progressive tethering, or tethered cord syndrome, in which their distal spinal cords become fastened to an immovable structure—such as overlying membranes and vertebrae—causing the spinal cord to become abnormally stretched and the vertebrae elongated with growth and movement. This condition can cause change in the muscle function of the legs, as well as changes in bowel and bladder function. Early surgery on the spinal cord may allow the child to regain a normal level of functioning and prevent further neurological deterioration.
Some children will need subsequent surgeries to manage problems with the feet, hips, or spine. Individuals with hydrocephalus generally will require additional surgeries to replace the shunt, which can be outgrown or become clogged.
Some individuals with spina bifida require assistive mobility devices such as braces, crutches, or wheelchairs. The location of the malformation on the spine often indicates the type of assistive devices needed. Children with a defect high on the spine and more extensive paralysis will often require a wheelchair, while those with a defect lower on the spine may be able to use crutches, bladder catherizations, leg braces, or walkers. Beginning special exercises for the legs and feet at an early age may help prepare the child for walking those those braces or crutches when he or she is older.
Treatment of bladder and bowel problems typically begins soon after birth, and may include bladder catheterizations and bowel management regimens.