Neural tube defects affect more than 3000 pregnancies every year in the US alone. These can cause life-threatening problems for babies as they develop inside the womb. While there is no cure for neural tube defects, you can lower the risk before and during pregnancy which will be detailed later on in this article.
What It Is
Neural tube defects affect the brain, spin, or spinal cord of babies while still in the womb. They are almost impossible to detect because these might occur even before the woman is aware of her pregnancy. There has been no known cause of neural tube defects but there is a higher risk of contracting them given the following conditions:
- Anti-seizure medication
If any of these apply to you, make sure you talk about it with your gynecologist in order to come up with a way to lower the risk of having neural tube defects even before you get pregnant.
There are different kinds of neural tube defects, each affecting the baby’s body differently. Here are some of them:
This is the most common among neural tube defects. Almost half of the cases reported each year are of this type. Here, the minute bones of the vertebrae do not close all the way through so it spills over to the spine. This condition can be really mild and can be corrected even before birth. However, at its worst, it can cause paralysis and problems with bowel and gallbladder control among children.
This is a rare type. In fact, it only occurs in about 13 percent of the total number of cases of neural tube defects each year. As the name suggests, it is the main cause of hydrocephalus or the build up of fluid in the baby’s brain. This happens because there is a tiny opening in the skull. This rare type can cause a lot of damage to babies and cannot be corrected. Some babies do not survive and die in the womb before birth. Children with encephalocele who are successfully delivered will have lasting disabilities including seizures, visual problems, intellectual development concerns, movement problems, and paralysis.
This is the most severe type among neural tube defects. This happens when the top part of the neural tube does not close. The brain of babies with anencephaly do not fully develop. In fact, some parts of the brain will be missing. Death, in this type of neural tube defect, is inevitable. Babies with this condition who are successfully delivered will only survive for a few hours.
Also called Arnold-Chiari Malformation, this defect affects the cerebellum which is the part of the brain that regulates balance. Mild cases would not require treatment. Severe cases cause neck pain, balance problems, dizziness, vision problems, poor hand coordination, and numbness in the arm or legs among children with this type of condition. Medicine can ease the symptoms while surgery might be needed to inhibit the progression of nerve damage.
Diagnosis and Tests
Neural tube defects are usually discovered after the first month of pregnancy usually through initial laboratory or imaging tests. Once anomalies are detected, your doctor might ask further tests to refine the findings. This most possibly will include:
- Triple screen blood test to see if there is a high level of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). The elevated presence of AFP is usually attributed to possible neural tube defects.
- Amniotic fluid tests to validate AFP findings as well as chromosomal abnormalities.
- X-ray magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography to identify spinal defects, presence of excess fluid, estimate the size of the baby’s head, as well as assessing infant’s overall functioning including his or her urinary stream
Early detection is extremely important. This way, you can better prepare for whatever outcome and can consult doctors who specialize in babies with neural tube defects. In fact, there are medical centers that specialize in caring for babies with this condition. You can also plan out what happens if the baby is stillborn or if the baby should be delivered through C-section or vaginal. Surgery is also an option particularly for babies with spina bifida. Research would show that pre-birth corrective surgery of spina bifida is more effective than after the baby is delivered.
Lowering the Risk
Given that neural tube defects do not have any cure and at their worst, cannot be corrected, it is important for women to prepare for pregnancy even before they get pregnant. They have to talk to their doctor if they are obese or are diabetic or are taking anti-seizure medication. They should also look into their family history since there have been research linking these defects to genetic predisposition. Also, women should take more folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps the body create new cells. It has been proven to prevent major birth defects particularly neural tube defects. You can get folic acid through:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dried bean, peas, and nuts
- Cereals, breads, and other grain products
- Dietary supplements
- Flour products
- White rice
Women of childbearing age should take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid before pregnancy. You can increase to about 1000 micrograms during pregnancy. For those with history of neural tube defects, take as much as 4000 micrograms of folic acid even before you get pregnant. Of course, make sure you get the clearance to do this from your gynecologist. You still have to take into consideration some of your health and dietary needs.
While it is a challenge to have a baby with any type of neural tube defects, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Your doctor can give you myriad options to better prepare for whatever outcome. For women who are not yet pregnant, you can lower the risk by loading up on folic acid and consulting your doctor if you are obese, diabetic, or taking anti-seizure medication. Lowering the risk of neural tube defects starts before women get pregnant so it is essential for you to do your part if you do plan to have a baby.