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Spina Bifida Differential Diagnoses

  • Author: Mark R Foster, MD, PhD, FACS; Chief Editor: Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 21, 2016

Diagnostic Considerations

Meningocele and myelomeningocele must be differentiated. Meningocele is the herniated protrusion of only the meninges through a defect in the cranium or vertebral column. This lesion does not contain neural tissue in the sac.

Spina bifida occulta is a common radiographic finding characterized by simple lack of fusion of vertebral spinous processes. The spinal cord itself is normal.

Tethered spinal cord

As previously mentioned, the diagnosis of tethered cord syndrome is confirmed on the basis of clinical signs and symptoms, which can include pain, sensory changes, spasticity, and progressive scoliosis.

However, uncontrolled hydrocephalus and Chiari II malformation must be excluded as causes of these symptoms. Moreover, symptoms similar to those of tethered cord syndrome can also be caused by other intraspinal pathologies, such as the following:

  • Mass lesions of the cord
  • Diastematomyelia
  • Cord cavitation and narrowing
  • Adhesions
  • Dural bands
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Mark R Foster, MD, PhD, FACS President and Orthopedic Surgeon, Orthopedic Spine Specialists of Western Pennsylvania, PC

Mark R Foster, MD, PhD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Orthopaedic Research Society, Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society, American Physical Society, American College of Surgeons, Christian Medical and Dental Associations, Eastern Orthopaedic Association, North American Spine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Kat Kolaski, MD Assistant Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Pediatrics, Wake Forest University School of Medicine

Kat Kolaski, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD Medical Director, Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine Associates

Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Teresa L Massagli, MD Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine and Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine

Teresa L Massagli, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and Association of Academic Physiatrists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lee H Riley III, MD Chief, Division of Orthopedic Spine Surgery, Associate Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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The lumbar region of a newborn baby with myelomeningocele. The skin is intact, and the placode-containing remnants of nervous tissue can be observed in the center of the lesion, which is filled with cerebrospinal fluid.
Myelomeningocele in a newborn.
Coronal, T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain show a Chiari II malformation. Note the stretching of the brainstem, aqueduct, and fourth ventricle.
Neonate with a lumbar myelomeningocele with an L5 neurologic level. Note the diaphanous sac filled with cerebrospinal fluid and containing fragile vessels in its membrane. Also, note the neural placode plastered to the dorsal surface of the sac. This patient underwent closure of his back and an untethering of his neural placode. The neural placode was circumnavigated and placed in the neural canal. A dural sleeve was fashioned in a way that reconstructed neural tube geometry.
Sagittal, T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of a child after closure of his myelomeningocele. Child is aged 7 years. Note the spinal cord ends in the sacral region far below the normal level of T12-L1. It is tethered at the point at which the neural placode was attached to the skin defect during gestation. The MRI scan showed dorsal tethering, and the child complained of back pain and had a new foot deformity on examination. By definition, all children with a myelomeningocele have a tethered cord on MRI, but only about 20% of children require an operation to untether the spinal cord during their first decade of life, during their rapid growth spurts. Thus, the MRI scan must be placed in context of a history and examination consistent with mechanical tethering and a resultant neurologic deterioration.
Axial, T1-weighted MRI scan of a 15-year-old girl who was born with thoracic myelomeningocele, hydrocephalus, and Arnold-Chiari II syndrome. She was treated with a ventriculoperitoneal shunt. The ventricular system has a characteristic shape, with small frontal and large occipital horns, which are typical in patients with spina bifida. The shunt tube is shown in the right parietal region.
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