Spina Bifida or Scoliosis: What Are The Differences?

Spina bifida and scoliosis are two conditions affecting the spine, but there are many differences between them. Spina bifida is a form of neural tube defect that occurs when an opening in the spine fails to close in utero. Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine that can lead to difficulties with posture and back pain.

What is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the vertebrae of the spine don't form properly and don't close completely, resulting in an exposed spinal cord and enclosed sac of fluid on one or more vertebrae. This can cause nerve damage and lead to physical and mental disabilities. Depending on the severity of the case, this can range from mild problems such as limited mobility of the legs, to more serious conditions such as paralysis and neurological impairments. Treatment typically includes surgery, bracing, leg braces, specialized shoes, physical therapy and other treatments to help manage symptoms.

What is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is an abnormal side-to-side curvature of the spine that typically occurs during a person’s early years of growth. It can range from mild to severe, and in rare cases, it can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. It’s usually identified by its distinctive “C” or “S” shape. The exact cause of scoliosis is not clear, but risk factors include a family history of scoliosis, being born prematurely and having a neurological disorder. Treatment typically includes wearing a brace, physical therapy or in extreme cases surgery to straighten out the spine.

Symptoms and Signs of Both Conditions

Both spina bifida and scoliosis can cause pain, discomfort and difficulty with mobility. In the case of spina bifida, symptoms usually appear in early childhood and include bladder control issues, recurring pneumonia or skin infections due to impaired sensation in the lower extremities, leg numbness or weakness, and problems with walking as well as vision and hearing difficulty caused by pressure on the brain. Signs of scoliosis include a curved spine of 25 degrees or more while standing or lying down, back pain that gets worse over time, uneven shoulders and hips that become increasingly noticeable over time, one shoulder blade being higher than the other, clothing not fitting properly due to spinal prominence.

Common Treatments for Spina Bifida and Scoliosis

Common treatments for spina bifida include physical therapy, surgery to correct the underlying defects or improve nerve functioning, use of a back brace to support the spine and correct alignment, medications to reduce pain, and antibiotic treatments for bacterial skin infections. For scoliosis, treatment usually involves wearing a brace to keep the spine aligned in order to prevent worsening of the curvature. For more severe cases that involve additional medical problems such as breathing difficulties, surgery may be necessary.

Additional Resources for Learning More About Each Condition

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with spina bifida or scoliosis, it can be helpful to learn more information about each condition. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has a website devoted to spina bifida that includes current research, treatment options, and support groups. For scoliosis, the Scoliosis Research Society is an excellent resource for information about prevalence, risk factors, treatment options and more.

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