Urinary tract infection

Urinary Tract Infections Following a Spinal Cord Injury

When learning about spinal cord injuries (SCI) and the way in which they affect the body, one of the primary considerations relates to lack of mobility.

But anyone who has sustained a serious SCI will confirm that this type of injury can impact the body in a number of different ways beyond reduced mobility.

Changes in blood pressure, impaired bladder function and issues with body temperature regulation are just some of the secondary complications which can arise following a spinal cord injury.

Another issue which an individual with an SCI may need to contend with is the increased risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs). Not only can these infections be painful, they can have a big impact on the individual’s overall health and wellbeing.

Here we take a closer look at UTIs, the symptoms associated with them and why they may be more likely to occur following a spinal cord injury.

What are Urinary Tract Infections?

Urinary tract infection infographic

The urinary system consists of the kidneys, bladder, ureters and the urethra. It’s an integral part of the human anatomy which is responsible for creating and storing urine, as well excreting it from the body.

A urinary tract infection is defined as any infection which involves part of the urinary system.

Typically, these infections will develop in the lower part of the urinary system, such as the urethra or the bladder. However, if the infection spreads to the kidneys, more serious health complications may arise.

Left untreated, a UTI can cause serious problems, even leading to sepsis. But if the issue is quickly and effectively dealt with, it’s rare for any further complications to arise.

Symptoms of UTIs

There are a number of different symptoms associated with urinary tract infections such as a burning sensation in the urethra, nausea and headache.

In some individuals, UTIs can cause spasming of the legs, bladder and abdomen. Visible signs of a urinary tract infection include a cloudy or bloody urine and a foul odor when the individual passes water.

Why are UTIs More Likely to Occur Following an SCI?

There are a number of reasons why an individual who has sustained a spinal cord injury is more susceptible to developing urinary tract infections. Bladder and bowel control are often affected with this kind of injury and a careful, ongoing management option is usually needed.

This could mean having a catheter to help keep the bladder empty. The simple act of putting this in and taking it out can mean that the individual is more exposed to bacteria, if high standards of hygiene are not constantly adhered to.

Loss of bowel control can also mean that the individual is exposed to bacteria contained in their stools. Another potential issue is that lack of proper control means that the bladder is not emptied all the time. In normal circumstances, fully emptying the bladder helps to get rid of bacteria, which can prevent UTIs occurring in the first place.

Prevention and Management of UTIs

Disabled woman drinking water after playing tennis

There is a lot that can be done to prevent UTIs from occurring. Self-management is normally taught at an early stage after initial recovery, because many individuals with an SCI will face this problem.

Some key tips to help prevent urinary tract infections from occurring following a spinal cord injury include:

  • If the individual uses an intermittent catheter, ensuring that the equipment is kept properly sterilized to prevent bacterial infections from occurring.
  • If the individual has an indwelling catheter, they are at more risk of developing a UTI and a focused management technique is generally necessary. This might include cleaning the opening of the catheter regularly as well as making sure that rectal area is kept thoroughly clean after a bowel movement.
  • A good practice is to make sure that the bladder does not get too full before deciding to empty it. An over-extended bladder is likely to cause infected urine to flow back towards the kidneys. Problems like kidney stones can also disrupt the flow of urine.
  • Drinking plenty of water is one of the simplest ways to reduce the potential for urinary tract infections occurring. Drinking allows the individual to flush out bacteria as well as having a whole host of other health benefits.
  • An individual can boost their immune system, which helps combat bacterial infections, by maintaining a healthy diet and doing as much exercise as possible.
  • It’s important to maintain high levels of hygiene to stop any bacterial infection from taking hold in the first place.
  • If the individual thinks that they have a UTI, it’s important to get checked out as soon as possible. Treatment may involve taking anti-biotics.

Whilst urinary tract infections are a common issue for individuals who have sustained a spinal cord injury, there is a lot that can be done to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

High levels of hygiene and general awareness can all contribute to keeping instances low and maintaining good bladder and urinary tract health.

If the issue does arise, prompt and effective management can help prevent any further complications from developing.