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Spinal Cord Injury Bladder Problems & Management

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Spinal Cord Injury and Bladder Function

If your nerve signals from your spine to your bladder have been affected by your injury, then you may struggle regaining bladder control after a spinal cord injury. You might find it difficult to pass urine or to stop its flow. You may be using a catheter which can be helpful for urinary incontinence after a spinal cord injury, but it could mean you are not passing urine as frequently. When this happens, your kidneys can find it trickier to filter your blood as well as normal and that can make you ill.

This can also trigger a set of symptoms that are part of a syndrome called autonomic dysreflexia. Signs of autonomic dysreflexia include becoming very sweaty, severe headaches and overall feeling very unwell, in which case you might need to stay in hospital. Catheters can also make it easier for bacteria to travel up your urinary system that cause urinary tract infections in persons with spinal cord injury. This is where you may feel ill or possibly need to visit hospital. While your medical team can support you with medications and catheters, you can also use the powerful tool of nutrition to help.

When we are well hydrated, this helps our blood vessels better able to carry our blood through our body, including through the filtering of our kidneys. It also means the urine we produce is less concentrated which makes it easier to flush through what our body is trying to get rid of, e.g. bacteria that may be travelling up our urinary system. To help with all the above, we can try to drink enough hydrating fluids but also include hydrating foods.

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Spinal Cord Injury and Bladder Health Top Tips

Our separate ‘Living with a Urinary Catheter Hydration Guide’ has lots of helpful hydrating tips even for those without catheters.

  1. Unless you have been given different hydration advice by a kidney-specialist Doctor or Dietitian, aim for 2L of water a day and you might find it beneficial to have 1-2 glasses of water with each meal and between them. You can flavour your water with fruit slices and herbs like mint, perhaps having cold-infusion ‘tea bags’, and options like low-sugar squash, decaf teas and coffees and some milk. Fizzy drinks, fruit juice and caffeinated drinks can potentially cause us to lose more fluid than normal, so it is best to choose other options.
  2. Hydrating foods include fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, berries, and melon. There are also other options like soups, stews, sauces, jelly, yoghurt, and cottage cheese.
  3. If your medical team has said you may develop calcified kidney stones, or you have them already, you do not need to reduce your calcium unless a kidney specialist dietitian has given this advice specifically to you. In our section on bone health we talk a little about the importance of calcium after a spinal cord injury.
  4. There are a few clinical studies on the effects of taking cranberry supplements or juice and bladder health, with some researchers focusing on those with spinal cord injuries. Just like the research that includes people without these injuries, some studies have shown cranberry products can reduce the chances of urinary infections, but others found they are not helpful at all. If you would like to try cranberry-products to aid your bladder health, then it is best to have this approved by your medical team to ensure it does not counteract any other medical advice you are following.