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How a spinal cord injury can affect your bladder

Spinal cord injuries

Spinal cord injury means damage to the spinal cord itself, sometimes in combination with damage to the nerve roots in the lowest section of the spinal cord. Each year, at least 7,500 Europeans suffer such serious damage to their spinal cords that they get permanent complications. In the US, the figure is around 10,000.

The spinal cord is about as thick as a finger and is very delicate. It lies in a fluid-filled canal in your vertebral column, the spine itself. The spinal cord contains cells that send and receive signals from your entire body. Thanks to these signals, we can, among other things, move our arms, legs and other muscles in the body. These signals also control the body’s ability to empty the bladder and bowels.

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Effects on your bladder

If your spinal cord is damaged, the ability for the signals to travel back and forth is impaired, resulting in bladder emptying problems. 

There are different types of damage to the spinal cord. The higher up in the spinal cord an injury occurs, the more muscles are affected. In the case of paraplegia, the spinal cord is so damaged that the legs are affected. In the case of tetraplegia, both arms and legs are affected. 

Complete spinal cord damage means that the spinal cord has been completely cut off. No signals can travel along it, which means that all feeling and ability to move is gone below the point of injury. 

If the damage is incomplete, you experience a certain loss of the ability to control your muscles. But some signals will still go through. If you have some motor control in your hands and arms, you will most likely be able to choose self-catheterization as a bladder emptying option.

The anatomical location and severity of your injury will determine the type of bladder condition you will have. Simply put, the higher the injury is located, the more serious it may be for your health. This is due to loss of steering and control of urination from the brain, and its centers. An injury above anatomical level of vertebra TH12/L1 may cause something called detrusor-sphincter dyssenergia. This means when no central steering of nerves is present, a reflex center takes over, leaving a chaos of impulses going through to the bladder and sphincter. The result is that the bladder and sphincter are working against each other which is dangerous since high pressure builds up in the bladder, causing urine to back up to the kidneys which potentially can destroy them. This is also associated with an increased risk of infection and incontinence. First line treatment is to reduce bladder pressure with pharmaceuticals and emptying the bladder with Clean Intermittent Catheterization (CIC). 

If you have an injury lower in your spinal cord at or below anatomic level of TH12/L1 you lose muscle tone in the bladder and sphincter. Due to the fact that this region is responsible for reflex bladder emptying, a complete injury results in areflexia of the detrusor (missing contraction of the bladder muscle). 

Damage below this reflex center affects some or all of the nerves in this region, depending on the type of lesion. If all nerve roots are affected, the condition of acontractile detrusor and sphincter occurs. However incomplete lesions are most common. And then only some nerve fibers are affected, so it may partly function. For example, filling of the bladder may be registered, but activation of the detrusor and/or sphincter is not possible. 

A low spinal cord injury results in retention or incomplete emptying, urinary tract infections and (overflow) incontinence. First line treatment is CIC.

It is also worth mentioning that recent studies indicate that up to 30% of those who lose control of their bladder, may regain function again some time after injury.

You can also find additional information in our enCATHopedia Leaflet.

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Bladder and Bowel dysfunctions often come together

It's only recently that health care providers have begun to notice the connection between bladder and bowel dysfunction. The impact is huge for people with neurogenic diseases. In a lot of cases, bladder and bowel symptoms coexist, side by side and interact. So it's time for a more holistic approach for the benefit of patients.

Are you asking the right questions?

But there are challenges to overcome - for both the patient and the healthcare provider. Better care and a better quality of life are possible when bladder and bowel are treated together.

We've collected testimonies from those with bladder and bowel dysfunction related to their neurogenic diagnosis, who's lives have been improved and we explore the therapies that help to improve quality of life so that both patient and professional can reach for a better quality of life.


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Related links
The American Spinal Injury Association has a wealth of information, links, news and social events for everyone with a spinal cord injury.
There is plenty of help and advice available about products for both patients and healthcare professionals on the Disabled Living Foundation's homepage.
The European Spinal Cord Injury Federation is an organisation that represents thirty national organisations from twenty six countries within Europe.
Spinalistips is bursting with tips for those who have suffered an injury affecting their dexterity and mobility, their carers and their family. There are hundreds of tips on everyday challenges that help patients to improve the quality of their lives.