There are a number of tests that can detect spina bifida.
Tests that can be done while the baby is in the womb include:
Ultrasound. Sound waves can produce an image of the fetus. Doctors look for swelling of the head, which is often seen in cases of spina bifida manifesta. Spinal defects may be hard to see with ultrasound.
Amniocentesis (of fluid inside the womb) or blood test. Either of these can reveal the presence of the chemical AFP (alpha-fetoprotein). If it is found, it may indicate a problem with the baby’s spine. A doctor will order this test if a woman has a family history of spina bifida or if she has already given birth to a child with spina bifida.
Learning that a fetus has the common spina bifida occulta should cause no concern, because it rarely causes any problems. If a couple finds out that their child will have the more severe spina bifida manifesta, they may choose to terminate the pregnancy.
Spina bifida occulta often shows itself later in life, when the person has a back X-ray for other reasons.
Spina bifida manifesta is usually obvious when a baby is born because of the likelihood of physical abnormalities. Most babies with spina bifida manifesta have enlarged heads due to an abnormal increase in the amount of spinal fluid within their heads (hydrocephalus). Doctors can detect complications and abnormalities associated with spina bifida manifesta through testing with:
An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which takes a detailed picture of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves using a magnetic field
CT (computed tomography), an X-ray machine that rotates around the body to produce a three-dimensional view. This allows a doctor to see deformities or swelling in the brain and spinal cord.