Bladder Management in Spinal Cord Injury
Original Editor - Eugenie Lamprecht
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Pathophysiology
- 3 Common Urinary Complications
- 4 Management
- 5 Relevance to Physiotherapy
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 References
Neurogenic urinary tract dysfunction is common among individuals with spinal cord injuries (SCIs) and may lead to common complications such as; renal insufficiency, incontinence, and urinary tract infections. Research indicates that urinary tract infections (UTI's) are the most common secondary complication (62%) reported among individuals with SCIs in the first year following discharge from in-hospital treatment. It was also found that UTI's were more prevalent among individuals with higher SCI-levels and complete SCIs.
Bladder dysfunction also decreases psychological and social well-being in individuals with SCIs.
Spinal Cord Injury often affects the urinary system and leads to bladder dysfunction or neurogenic bladder. Neurogenic bladder is when bladder control is affected due to the brain, spinal cord, or nerve complications.
The 3 areas of the Central Nervous System that control bladder function are;
- Cerebral Cortex,
- Pontine Micturition Centre, and
- Sacral Micturition Centre.
In a Spinal Cord Injury, lesions can interrupt 3 pathways that will lead to bladder dysfunction;
- Interruption of the Pontine and Sacral Micturition Centres (Central Lesions) or
- Detrusor Muscle Innervation (Sacral Cord Lesions) or
- Bladder Neck Innervation (Sympathetic) and the External Urethral Sphincter's Innervation
Neurogenic Bladder can be classified according to different types of conditions involving the detrusor and sphincter activity.
- Hypereflexia with an involuntary contraction: This leads to sphincter dyssynergia, reflex incontinence, and residual urine.
- Arefelxia of both the Detrusor and Sphincter Muscles: This is due to sacral injury and leads to stress incontinence and residual urine.
- Areflexia of the Detrusor Muscle and Hyperreflexia of the Sphincter: This leads to urinary retention and overflow incontinence.
- Areflexia of the Sphincter and Hyperreflexia of the Detrusor muscle: This leads to reflex incontinence.
Other classifications are based on the level of injury in the Suprasacral, Sacral, or Infrasacral segments.
Suprasacral Neurogenic Bladder occurs due to spinal cord injury between the brainstem and sacral center. This leads to disinhibited sacral reflexes, overactivity of the detrusor, overactivity of the external and/or internal sphincters, and impaired coordination between these two muscles. Possible complications are voiding, urgency, frequency, incontinence, and high pressures in the bladder, leading to reflux, hydronephrosis, and kidney failure.
Sacral Neurogenic Bladder occurs due to injury to the sacral spinal cord.
While the Infrasacral Neurogenic Bladder occurs due to injury to the Cauda Equina.
Both the Sacral and Infrasacral Neurogenic Bladder are classified as Lower Motor Neuron Lesions (LMNL) and often result in difficulty with bladder emptying and lack of sensation, which leads to overflow and stress incontinence, urinary tract infection, bladder distension, and possible renal failure.
It is important to remember that Spinal Shock can last up to 3 months following Spinal Cord Injury and will influence bladder function, therefore, bladder assessment should be conducted following the spinal shock stage. If involuntary and uncoordinated bladder contraction occurs following the spinal shock stage, it may present neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
Common Urinary Complications
- Urinary Tract Infection (UTI); Symptoms include; fever, foul-smelling urine, and/or hematuria. UTI's are more common when catheterized by someone else instead of self-catheterization.
- Urethritis; Inflammation of Urethra
- Prostatitis; Inflammation of Prostate Gland
- Epididymitis and Epididymo-orchitis: Inflammation of the Epididymis and/or Testis.
- Bladder Stones
- Renal Stones
- Renal Impairment
- Bladder Cancer: Individuals with spinal cord injury are 20 times more likely to develop bladder cancer. Risk factors include; recurrent UTI's, Bladder Stones, and Indwelling Catheter use.
- Autonomic Dysreflexia (AD): Distention of the bladder can cause AD.
The main aim of bladder management in individuals with Spinal Cord Injury is to preserve upper tract function with low intravesical pressure through adequate bladder drainage and to maintain urinary continence.
- A voiding-diary and history should be taken in the first assessment, as well as assessing the pelvic anatomy.
- Determine the Motor Level of Spinal Cord Injury; Level, Complete vs. Incomplete, Extremities Tone, Rectal Tone, and Bulbocavernosus Reflex.
- Symptom Score (Questionnaire or Outcome Measure).
- Urinalysis, Urine Culture, and Sensitivity.
- Serum Blood Urea Nitrogen / Creatinine.
- Creatinine Clearance.
- Urinary Tract Imaging.
Treatment should be specific and individualized according to the type of voiding dysfunction, level of injury, the extent of impairment, and care available to the patient.
Timed-voiding is behavioural exercise to practice bladder control as generally done in combination with fluid-intake diaries. The recommended daily fluid-intake is 6 to 8 glasses of water per day. Acidic and caffeinated beverages should be avoided if possible. General bladder retraining should include;
- Limit fluid-intake after 6 pm.
- Routine bladder emptying, between every 4 to 6 hours.
- Limit caffeinated and carbonated beverage usage.
- Attempt to not rush to the bathroom.
Education including treatment possibilities, possible risks, and complications, as well as precautions and techniques such as self-catheterization and bladder retraining if applicable, etc.
Valsalva and Crede Manoeuvres
This method is proven to be the safest emptying method. Depending on fluid intake and frequency of incontinence, it is recommended that individuals perform intermittent catheterization every 4 to 6 hours. Common complications include; Erectile Dysfunction, Poor Sexual activity, and increased incidents of depression .
This method is also commonly used by individuals with paraplegia but can also be used by individuals with tetraplegia. Suprapubic catheters are commonly also used by individuals with tetraplegia.  Suprapubic catheters are generally easier to manage in terms of hygiene and catheter changes.
Indwelling Urinary Catheters
This method is often used in the acute phase and not recommended for long-term use due to the higher risk of complications .
Long term use is only recommended if individuals have difficulty self-catheterizing,  as well as in incidents to prevent contamination during wound healing and Stage 3 or 4 Perineal Pressure Ulcers.
- Anticholinergic Medications (works by blocking cholinergic transmission at muscarinic receptors)
- Botulinum Toxin 
- Botulinum Toxin injection in the detrusor with augmentation Systoplasty (Decrease Bladder Tone & Increase Capacity)
- Artificial Urinary Sphincter (AUS), Abdominal Slings, or a Transobturator Tape Procedure (Treating incompetent sphincters)
- Neuromodulation and Nerve Grafting (improve bladder emptying coordination).
- Muscle Grafting (Treating acontractile bladder. acontractile bladder is when the bladder is unable to demonstrate any contraction during a pressure-flow study).
Relevance to Physiotherapy
Spinal Cord Injury influences the functioning of many systems including; respiratory, cardiovascular, sexual, bladder, and bowel functioning. Ongoing intervention and management are required in individuals with spinal cord injury.
Individuals with spinal cord injury are often seen by physiotherapists more regularly than physicians or other healthcare professionals and therefore it is essential that physiotherapists continue monitoring, assessing, and addressing possible complications such as pressure ulcers, bladder problems, contracture, etc. when they arise.
Bladder retraining forms part of a multi-disciplinary approach and physiotherapists also form a vital part of the individual's education and technique training of catheterization (in certain settings).
Research indicates that depression and quality of life following a spinal cord injury is directly related to bladder dysfunction. It also has a significant impact on the social and financial factors in individuals with spinal cord injury as well as their families and communities. Because bladder dysfunction is such a common secondary complication among individuals with spinal cord injury, it is essential that physiotherapists are well educated about the signs and symptoms as well as the general management thereof.
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- Paraiso MF, Abate G. Timed voiding and fluid management. InPelvic Floor Dysfunction 2008 (pp. 311-314). Springer, London.
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