Spinal Cord Injury & the Bladder

Spinal cord injury has a profound effect upon bladder as well as bowel function. There are several patterns of bladder dysfunction that develop. The problems that occur are very dependent on how the bladder and the urinary sphincter respond to spinal cord injury. The bladder can generally be either severely contracted and spastic or dilated without any contractile function (atonic).


These types of bladder problems are treated very differently. The first can lead to kidney failure through very high pressures that are generated within the bladder. These patients need close monitoring to make sure that pressures are not high and may need treatments to decrease the pressure and resultant leakage, which often occurs. In the second type of bladder dysfunction, the main problem is with adequate emptying of the bladder. Usually these patients need to perform intermittent catheterization in order to empty their atonic bladder.

Chronic Catheters: Suprapubic & Foley 

Bladder showing chronic inflammation from an indwelling catheter

One issue that is a common problem is the use of chronic catheters in patients that have had a spinal cord injury. Most patients that have a spinal cord injury do not empty their bladder reliably and for this reason it is common to see patients that rely on a chronic indwelling catheter. This catheter is either placed in the urethra or through a puncture in the abdomen above the pubic bone. The catheter placed in the urethra is known as a Foley catheter and the one placed through the abdomen is known as a suprapubic catheter.

These chronic catheters are very different from catheters that patients use to intermittently catheterize a few times a day to drain the bladder. Most patients eventually develop problems with chronic catheters. These problems mostly involve infections, chronic sores in the buttocks (sacral decubiti) and renal failure. It is very common to see patients that have had a chronic catheter for many years that begin to develop very severe urinary tract infections. These infections can require intravenous antibiotics or admission to the hospital and eventually become constant. These are the result of the body’s natural reaction to chronic foreign material in the urinary system.

Patients and even their doctors often think that just having a catheter will drain the bladder and prevent high pressures and urinary leakage. Unfortunately these catheters do not do well at either task. Bladders are often somewhat distended with a catheter in place and the catheters do not protect the kidneys well from damage and the development of kidney failure. Also, patients often leak around the catheter when the bladder spasms. This urinary leakage can dramatically worsen pressure sores called decubiti. If these sores progress they can cause terrible damage.

Often in an attempt to control urinary leakage catheters are upsized to larger and larger catheters. These measures usually do not improve and may even worsen things. Other common strategies to control infection are the use of suppressive antibiotics and frequent catheter changes. These measures may improve infection for a time, but usually once these kinds of problems manifest themselves when a patient has a chronic catheter it is time to consider other options.


The other options include reconstructive surgery, which will increase the capacity of the bladder and eliminate high pressures in the bladder or to establish a catheterizable channel that can be intermittently catheterized to drain out the bladder. Every case is unique, but there is not much doubt that if a strategy can be found, which avoids chronic catheterization the patient’s long-term kidney function and overall health will be much better preserved.