Adult Complications of Spina Bifida Occulta

Spina bifida occulta is a physical deformity that occurs as a baby develops in the mother's womb. The bones around the spinal cord fail to develop normally, but the nerves don't generally have any damage. Skin on the child’s back is generally normal; however, there can be a dimple, a hair patch or a red discoloration directly over the affected area. Babies who are born with spina bifida occulta do not usually experience any effects. As they grow into adulthood, they may experience complications that change their medical care.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Tethered Cord

According to Children's Hospital Boston, as a baby develops the spinal cord begins as a flat plate of cells. It later rolls into a tube encased inside the spine. The spine will grow faster than the cord. When there are no impediments, the cord will move up and down freely in the channel within the spine. However, sometimes the spinal cord becomes attached to the surrounding tissue, usually at the base of the back where the spina bifida occulta has occurred. When the cord becomes tethered, the individual will experience neurological deficits that include weakened lower extremities and bowel and bladder dysfunction.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Medical School published their findings in the "Journal of Neurosurgery Spine" regarding the presentation of tethered cord syndrome in adults who suffered from spina bifida occulta. They found that although the presentation is unusual, surgical correction holds relatively low risk and offers potential for neurological stabilization.


According to the Spina Bifida Association, the ability to become pregnant is not significantly affected by the spinal deformity. However, the ability to maintain the pregnancy to term can be impacted by the level of the spina bifida occulta and any previous abdominal surgeries. Women with spina bifida will have structural changes to the uterus while those who experience spina bifida occulta generally do not. However, the occulta abnormality can cause lower body inflexibility and difficulties with potential tethered cord that will impact the ability of a woman’s body to maintain a pregnancy.


According to the Chiari and Syringomyelia Foundation, a syringomyelia may be the result of a tethered spinal cord. The area of the syrinx, or fluid filled cyst, will help to dictate the type of treatment that will be considered. In some cases this may respond to a tethered cord release. Symptoms of a syringomyelia include muscle weakness, loss of reflexes and loss of sensitivity to pain and temperature. Other symptoms can include stiffness, pain, bowel and bladder function problems and tingling sensation in the trunk and into the legs.