Types of spina bifida

You may not know, but there are a number of different types of spina bifida.  We’ve listed them here along with an explanation of what each one means.

The three main types of spina bifida always present at birth are:

Open spina bifida (spina bifida cystica - cyst-like)

The visible signs are a sac or cyst, rather like a large blister on the back.

There are two forms:

Myelomeningocele (meningomyelocele)

Myelomeningocele is the most serious and more common of the two forms of cystic spina bifida. Here the cyst not only contains tissue and cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF)but also nerves and part of the spinal cord. The exposed spinal cord is damaged  by the fluid in the womb during pregnancy. It may also not develop properly. As a result, there is nearly always some resulting paralysis and loss of sensation. Nerves to and from the spinal cord emerging below the damaged region may not pass messages to the brain. The extent of this can be patchy and difficult to predict.

The lower on the spine, and smaller the lesion, the less severe the resulting impairment is likely to be. Bladder and bowel problems occur in most people with myelomeningocele, as the nerves come from the very  bottom of the spinal cord, and are always below the lesion. It is also necessary to have intact nerve pathways to the brain for complete control and sensation.


In this form, the sac contains meninges (tissues which cover the brain and spinal cord) and CSF, but no spinal tissue. Development of the spinal cord may be affected, but impairment is usually less severe than myelomeningocele. Meningocele is the least common form of spina bifida.

Closed spinal lesions (spina bifida occulta)

This is a mild form of spina bifida which is very common. Estimates vary but between 5% and 10% of people may have spina bifida occulta. For most people affected, having closed skin spina bifida is of no consequence whatsoever. However, for some, there are other associated conditions, such as lipomyelomeningocele or diastematomyelia that can have a significant  impact, like tethered cord.


Related conditions

There are a number of conditions that share features with, or are otherwise closely linked to spina bifida.

 Read more on related conditions

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