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Neurogenic Bladder

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prognosis

Neurogenic bladder is a dysfunction that results from interference with the normal nerve pathways associated with urination.


Normal bladder function is dependent on the nerves that sense the fullness of the bladder (sensory nerves) and on those that trigger the muscle movements that either empty it or retain urine (motor nerves). The reflex to urinate is triggered when the bladder fills to 300-500 ml. The bladder is then emptied when the contraction of the bladder wall muscles forces urine out through the urethra. The bladder, internal sphincters, and external sphincters may all be affected by nerve disorders that create abnormalities in bladder function.

There are two categories of neurogenic bladder dysfunction: overactive (spastic or hyper-reflexive) and underactive (flaccid or hypotonic). An overactive neurogenic bladder is characterized by uncontrolled, frequent expulsion of urine from the bladder. There is reduced bladder capacity and incomplete emptying of urine. An underactive neurogenic bladder has a capacity that is extremely large (up to 2000 ml). Due to a loss of the sensation of bladder filling, the bladder does not contract forcefully, and small amounts of urine dribble from the urethra as the bladder pressure reaches a breakthrough point.

Causes and symptoms

There are numerous causes for neurogenic bladder dysfunction and symptoms vary depending on the cause. An overactive bladder is caused by interruptions in the nerve pathways to the bladder occurring above the sacrum (five fused spinal vertebrae located just above the tailbone or coccyx). This nerve damage results in a loss of sensation and motor control and is often seen in stroke, Parkinson's disease, and most forms of spinal-cord injuries. An underactive bladder is the result of interrupted bladder stimulation at the level of the sacral nerves. This may result from certain types of surgery on the spinal cord, sacral spinal tumors, or congenital defects. It also may be a complication of various diseases, such as syphilis, diabetes mellitus, or polio.


Neurogenic bladder is diagnosed by carefully recording fluid intake and urinary output and by measuring the quantity of urine remaining in the bladder after voiding (residual urine volume). This measurement is done by draining the bladder with a small rubber tube (catheter) after the person has urinated. Kidney function also is evaluated by regular laboratory testing of the blood and urine. Cystometry may be used to estimate the capacity of the bladder and the pressure changes within it. These measurements can help determine changes in bladder compliance in order to assess the effectiveness of treatment. Doctors may use a cystoscope to look inside the bladder and tubes that lead to it from the kidneys (ureters). Cystoscopy may be used to assess the loss of muscle fibers and elastic tissues and, in some cases, for removing small pieces of tissue for biopsy.


Doctors using begin treating neurogenic bladder by attempting to reduce bladder stretching (distension) through intermittent or continuous catheterization. In intermittent catheterization, a small rubber catheter is inserted at regular intervals (four to six times per day) to approximate normal bladder function. This avoids the complications that may occur when a catheter remains in the bladder's outside opening (urethra) continuously (an indwelling catheter). Intermittent catheterization should be performed using strict sterile technique (asepsis) by skilled personnel, and hourly fluid intake and output must be recorded. Patients who can use their arms may be taught to catheterize themselves.

Indwelling catheters avoid distension by emptying the bladder continuously into a bedside drainage collector. Individuals with indwelling catheters are encouraged to maintain a high fluid intake in order to prevent bacteria from accumulating and growing in the urine. Increased fluid intake also decreases the concentration of calcium in the urine, minimizing urine crystallization and the subsequent formation of stones. Moving around as much as possible and a low calcium diet also help to reduce stone formation.

Drugs may be used to control the symptoms produced by a neurogenic bladder. The unwanted contractions of an overactive bladder with only small volumes of urine may be suppressed by drugs that relax the bladder (anticholinergics) such as propantheline (Pro-Banthine) and oxybutynin (Ditropan). Contraction of an underactive bladder with normal bladder volumes may be stimulated with parasympathomimetics (drugs that mimic the action resulting from stimulation of the parasympathetic nerves) such as bethanechol (Urecholine).

Long-term management for the individual with an overactive bladder is aimed at establishing an effective spontaneous reflex voiding. The amount of fluid taken in is controlled in measured amounts during the waking hours, with sips only toward bedtime to avoid bladder distension. At regular intervals during the day (every four to six hours when fluid intake is two to three liters per 24 hours), the patient attempts to void using pressure over the bladder (Crede maneuver). The patient may also stimulate reflex voiding by abdominal tapping or stretching of the anal sphincter. The Valsalva maneuver, involving efforts similar to those used when straining to pass stool, produces an increase in intra-abdominal pressure that is sometimes adequate to completely empty the bladder. The amount of urine remaining in the bladder (residual volume) is estimated by a comparison of fluid intake and output. The patient also may be catheterized immediately following the voiding attempt to determine residual urine. Catheterization intervals are lengthened as the residual urine volume decreases and catheterization may be discontinued when urine residuals are at an acceptable level to prevent urinary tract infection.

For an underactive bladder, the patient may be placed on a similar bladder routine with fluid intake and output adjusted to prevent bladder distension. If an adequate voiding reflex cannot be induced, the patient may be maintained on clean intermittent catheterization.

Some individuals who are unable to control urine output (urinary incontinence) due to deficient sphincter tone may benefit from perineal exercises. Although this is a somewhat dated technique, male patients with extensive sphincter damage may be helped by the use of a Cunningham clamp. The clamp is applied in a horizontal fashion behind the glans of the penis and must be removed approximately every four hours for bladder emptying to prevent bacteria from growing in the urine and causing an infection. Alternation of the Cunningham clamp with use of a condom collection device will reduce the skin irritation sometimes caused by the clamp.

Surgery is another treatment option for incontinence. Urinary diversion away from the bladder may involve creation of a urostomy or a continent diversion. The surgical implantation of an inflatable sphincter is another option for certain patients. An indwelling urinary catheter is sometimes used when all other methods of incontinence management have failed. The long-term use of an indwelling catheter almost inevitably leads to some urinary tract infections, and contributes to the formation of urinary stones (calculi). Doctors may prescribe antibiotics preventively to reduce recurrent urinary tract infection.

Alternative treatment

The cause of the bladder problem must be determined and treated appropriately. If nerve damage is not permanent, homeopathy and acupuncture may help restore function.


Individuals with an overactive bladder caused by spinal cord lesions at or above the seventh thoracic vertebra, are at risk for sympathetic dysreflexia, a life-threatening condition which can occur when the bladder (and/or rectum) becomes overly full. Initial symptoms include sweating (particularly on the forehead) and headache, with progression to slow heart rate (bradycardia) and high blood pressure (hypertension). Patients should notify their physician promptly if symptoms do not subside after the bladder (or rectum) is emptied, or if the bladder (or rectum) is full and cannot be emptied.



Agency for Health Care Policy and Research. Urinary Incontinence in Adults: Acute and Chronic Management. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996.

Doughty, Dorothy B. Urinary and Fecal Incontinence. St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book, 1991.

Monaham, Frances D., and Marianne Neighbors. Medical-Surgical Nursing: Foundations for Clinical Practice. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1998.

Suddarth, Doris S. The Lippincott Manual of Nursing Practice. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1991.


Bladder Health Council, American Foundation for Urologic Disease. 300 West Pratt St., Suite 401, Baltimore, MD 21201. (800) 242-2383 or (410) 727-2908.

National Association for Continence. P.O. Box 8310, Spartanburg, SC 29305-8310. (800) 252-3337. <http://www.nafc.org>.

Simon Foundation for Continence. Box 835, Wilmette, IL 60091.

Kathleen D. Wright, RN


Anticholinergic—An agent that blocks certain nerve impulses.

Catheterization—Insertion of a slender, flexible tube into the bladder to drain urine.

Compliance—A term used to describe how well a patient's behavior follows medical advice.

Cystometry—A test of bladder function in which pressure and volume of fluid in the bladder are measured during filling, storage, and voiding.

Cystoscopy—A direct method of bladder study and visualization using a cystoscope (self-contained optical lens system). The cystoscope can be manipulated to view the entire bladder, with a guide system to pass it up into the ureters (tubes leading from the kidneys to the bladder).

Glans penis—The bulbous tip of the penis.

Motor nerves—Nerves that cause movement when stimulated.

Parasympathomimetic—An agent whose effects mimic those resulting from stimulation of the parasympathetic nerves.

Perineal—The diamond-shaped region of the body between the pubic arch and the anus.

Reflex—An involuntary response to a particular stimulus.

Sensory nerves—Nerves that convey impulses from sense organs to the higher parts of the nervous system, including the brain.

Sphincter—A band of muscles that surrounds a natural opening in the body; these muscles can open or close the opening by relaxing or contracting.

Ureter—A tube leading from one of the kidneys to the bladder.

Urethra—The tube that leads from the bladder to the outside of the body.

Urostomy—A diversion of the urinary flow away from the bladder, resulting in output through the abdominal wall. The most common method involves use of a portion of intestine to conduct the urine out through the abdomen and into an external pouch worn for urine collection.

Additional topics

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