What is Spina Bifida? 

Spina Bifida (SB) is a birth defect where the spinal cord and brain do not develop properly due to incomplete closure of the neural tube, an essential process for the development of the central nervous system. SB can be diagnosed during the prenatal or postnatal stage and affects approximately 150 babies in Australia each year. 

SB is categorised into 4 subgroups which determine the severity of the condition and level of functional impairment or disability. The key symptoms for SB include weakness of the lower body, brain dysfunction and bladder and bowel incontinence though symptoms can vary from person to person. Generally, the lower the position of the defect on the spinal cord, the lower the severity of symptoms

Complications associated with Spina Bifida? 

  • Weakness and loss of sensation in the trunk stabilisers, legs and feet. 
  • Chiari II malformation is an increase in pressure on the spinal cord causing difficulty breathing, swallowing and weakness in the arms and hands. 
  • Hydrocephalus is a build-up of the fluid which surrounds the brain, increasing pressure on the brain and requiring surgery for the fluid to be drained through a shunt.
  • Meningitis
  • Tethered cord – tension on the spinal cord with growth which can lead to back pain, leg pain, hypertonia, and spasms in limbs which have lost nerve innervation. 
  • Bladder and bowel incontinence
  • Learning disabilities
  • Other complications such as low bone mineral density, obesity, kidney failure, sleep apnoea and depression

What does this mean for exercising? 

Studies have shown that people living with SB have impaired cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle strength, body composition and flexibility when compared to healthy populations. Additionally, some complications listed above mean individuals may also be at risk of osteoporosis (decreased bone strength) and sarcopenia (reduced muscle mass), causing muscle weakness, balance deficits, poor walking biomechanics and increased risk of fractures. 

However, research shows exercise intervention to be greatly beneficial for cardiorespiratory health and function, muscle strength and mobility in individuals with SB. As these functional attributes increase we tend to see improvements in walking gait and speed, balance, independence and overall quality of life while also reducing sedentary behaviour and associated complications such as obesity. 

Exercise recommendations for Spina Bifida:

Regular exercise is highly recommended for individuals with SB, to improve function and independence and to reduce sedentary behaviour and associated complications. While a progressive resistance program will be specific to the individual and their impairments, below are the general recommendations for exercising in individuals with SB: 

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of the two
  • Muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week
  • Supervised exercise can improve performance – take caution when exercising on your own!
  • Consider your own ability and what you are capable of doing
  • Consider any regular medication you may be on and potential side effects of these.

Are you or a loved one living with Spina Bifida? Do you need to start an exercise program? Contact us today to learn more about how we may be able to help improve your long-term health and function.

Author: William Waters

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