Become Pain Free Now

Physical Therapy for Spina Bifida – Information, Exercises, and More

Spina bifida can be complex. 

But certain treatments can help manage the symptoms, increase mobility, and prevent complications.

Keep reading to learn more about spina bifida and how physical therapy can help. 

spina bifida physical therapy


What Is Spina Bifida?

Spina bifida is a congenital birth defect in which an area of a baby’s spinal column doesn’t form properly in utero. 

Instead of closing completely, the spine develops with a section of the spinal cord and spinal nerves exposed through an opening in the baby’s back.

Spina bifida is the most common central nervous system birth defect in the U.S. affecting around 1,400 babies each year, and it can occur at any point along the spinal cord.

There are several types of spina bifida, but the three most common include:

  1. Myelomeningocele — Myelomeningocele occurs when a gap in the spinal cord allows the nerve tissue, spinal cord, and spinal fluid to leak out. This causes nerve damage and leaves a visible sac on the baby’s back. This type of spina bifida is the most severe.
  2. Meningocele — Like myelomeningocele, meningocele also occurs when a gap forms in the spinal cord, allowing the nerve tissue, spinal cord, and spinal fluid to leak.  But,  meningocele doesn’t result in nerve damage. Because of this, the physical symptoms of this form of spina bifida are typically milder.
  3. Occulta — Occulta occurs when one or more of the bones in the spine develops a gap. Sometimes called “hidden spina bifida,” occulta doesn’t result in a visible sac and rarely causes significant physical symptoms. It’s the most common and least severe form of spina bifida.

What Causes Spina Bifida?

During the first trimester of pregnancy, a fetus’s neural tube develops into a spinal cord. In a baby with spina bifida, the neural tube doesn’t fully close, leaving a gap in the spinal cord.

This gap keeps the bones around the spinal cord from forming properly and may lead to nerve and spinal cord damage and/or physical and cognitive disabilities.

While the exact reason for spina bifida has yet to be discovered, several factors may increase the possibility of having a baby with spina bifida, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Vitamin B9 deficiency
  • Family history of neural tube defects
  • Increased body temperature during the first few weeks of pregnancy
  • Using certain medications during pregnancy, particularly some drugs used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder 

Spina Bifida Symptoms

Spina bifida can result in various physical and cognitive symptoms that may range from mild to severe depending on the:

  • Size and location of the spinal gap
  • Range of the spinal cord and nerves that are affected

Gaps or holes in higher parts of the spine generally result in more severe symptoms, but gaps in the lower spine are more common.

The most common symptoms of spina bifida include:

  • Difficulty moving the legs to crawl or walk
  • Blood flow issues in the legs due to limited muscle use
  • Weak bones and joints
  • Curved or misshapen bones
  • Weak or paralyzed legs 
  • Bowel and urinary issues 
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sensitive skin

Spina bifida also occurs alongside other physical conditions, including:

  • Hydrocephalus, which results in excess fluid build-up around the brain
  • Tethered spinal cord, in which part of the spinal cord attaches to a bony defect
  • Chiari II malformation, which causes a portion of the brain to push through the opening at the base of the skull

Spina Bifida Treatment


Surgery for spina bifida often takes place in utero or 24–48 hours after birth. Spina bifida patients may also have various additional surgeries throughout their lifetimes. 

Follow-Up Care

Follow-up care for spina bifida is generally lifelong and may include:

  • Lower extremity bracing
  • Clean intermittent catheterization
  • Bowel management
  • Pressure sore management
  • Referrals to psychosocial and financial resources
  • Physical therapy
  • Consultations with specialists, including ophthalmologists, nephrologists, nutrition and feeding specialists, and plastic surgeons

Physical Therapy

Spina bifida physical therapy may include:

  • Exercises and activities to improve range of motion and physical function
  • The use of equipment and assistive devices, such as:
    • Wheelchairs
    • Walkers
    • Braces
    • Orthotics
  • Home exercise programs

Can Physical Therapy Help Spina Bifida?


Physical therapy is important when it comes to both the management and treatment of spina bifida symptoms.

A physical therapist can begin working with a patient at birth to help them reach developmental milestones and improve movement and independence.

Long-term, physical therapy for spina bifida can help prevent or reduce complications such as tethered cord syndrome, urinary tract infections, or neurogenic bladder.

Physical Therapy Exercises for Spina Bifida

Hamstring Stretch

To do a hamstring stretch:

  1. Sit in a chair with one leg extended forward as best you can.
  2. With your knee and back straight, gently lean toward your toes.
  3. Hold for 10–30 seconds before repeating on the other leg.


You will need an exercise band for this exercise. To do rowing:

  1. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  2. Slowly pull back on the exercise band (like you’re rowing).
  3. Repeat 10 times.

Arm Extensions

You will need an exercise band for this exercise. To do arm extensions:

  1. Extend your arms while holding the resistance band out in front of you.
  2. Pull the band out and across, horizontally. 
  3. Hold for a count of five, then relax.
  4. Repeat 10 times.

How Spina Bifida Physical Therapy at In Motion O.C. Can Help

If you or someone you love has spina bifida, the professional team at In Motion O.C. can help.

They’ll perform a thorough evaluation and physical exam that will include:

  • Gathering birth and developmental history
  • Asking general health questions
  • Conducting motor development tests

Then, once they understand the patient’s specific strengths and limitations, they will create a specialized plan designed to meet the individual’s unique needs.

In Motion O.C. has helped many patients with spina bifida — and we have reviews and testimonials to prove it. 

We’re also the #1 physical therapist in the entire country on Yelp, so you can be confident you’re in good hands.

Trust the professionals at In Motion O.C. for the most comprehensive physical therapy interventions for spina bifida. 

Request a free screening today.


The content in this blog should not be used in place of direct medical advice/treatment and is solely for informational purposes.

In Motion O.C.