In January 2013 an accident left me with spinal injury at the base of my neck, paralysis below that site, severe spasticity and double incontinence. My urethra and anus are permanently closed except when opened by manual intervention. I was in a spinal injuries hospital until the end of July. A suprapubic catheter was installed about four months after my spinal injury. Until then nurses used intermittent urethral catheterisation. I was due to be discharged from hospital soon, and because I have very little use of my hands, intermittent self-catheterisation would have been impossible.
It was installed as a minor operation of less than an hour using a local anaesthetic. It goes directly into my bladder about two inches below my navel. My catheter is connected to a leg bag (750ml.) which is emptied around 10am, 5pm and 8.30pm by carers and changed weekly, and overnight, to a night bag of 2 litres, emptied around 10am and also changed weekly.
I wear my catheter outside my trousers instead of inside. This allows easier access to it and avoids minor sores which often developed on my left leg where the joint between catheter and leg bag caused some rubbing of my skin when my catheter was inside my trousers.
URINARY TRACT INFECTIONS AND CATHETER BLOCKAGES
Between May 2013 and January 2016 I had occasional urinary tract infections (UTIs) treated successfully with Nitrofurantoin (3x50mg tablets per day for a few days). Then from January until July 2016 I had 23 catheter blockages, all between about 11pm and 1am. I still had occasional UTIs treated successfully with Nitrofurantoin. A blockage is a terrible and dangerous experience: sweating, spasms jolting, throbbing, an urge to move my legs which I can not do, skin rashes, itching - and this will continue until relief arrives by unblocking or replacing it. The threat of a blockage had become a big concern and made me apprehensive of going to bed.
On 24th July 2016 it became clear to me that many of the blockages had occurred at the same time as the UTIs: it appeared that the same bacteria were causing both: so if the UTIs could be stopped, so too would the blockages.
To stop the UTIs I started to use Nitrofurantoin to prevent them (previously I had used it to cure them); so I took 50mg each evening for 30 days, then gradually reduced it to about 3x50mg tablets per month. This worked very well: I had only a few minor UTIs and no blockages until 2020 when I contracted cellulitis.
I do not know for how many people with catheter blockages Nitrofurantoin would work. Not all blockages are caused by bacteria on the Nitrofurantoin hit-list. Anyone who tries it without success might try a different antibiotic preferably preceded by an analysis of their catheter contents at the time of the blockage to find out what other bacteria could have been responsible. Also, it should be remembered that Nitrofurtantoin kills the bacteria which commonly create sediment causing blockages. It stops the production of more sediment but it does not dissolve sediment already in the catheter: so it is possible to get a blockage after taking Nitrofurantoin.
SUPPORTING METHODS TO PREVENT UTIs AND BLOCKAGES
If the blockage is in the visible part of the catheter (often near the end where it becomes wider to attach to the leg bag), or in the tube leading to the leg bag, it might be removable by manual manipulation.
For several years starting soon after the blockages I had weekly bladder wash-outs, now only occasionally. These have the advantage or reaching the last few inches of my catheter inside my bladder but on at least two occasions have caused blockages. When there has been some sediment in my catheter, they have washed it down and caused a blockage in the last few inches.
Drinking plenty of liquid is widely recommended to wash out sediment, although it will exacerbate any blockage that does occur. Also care must be taken not to exceed provisions for emptying leg bag and night bag.
Bacteria can be curbed by an acidic environment. Vinegar on food might help; lemons are often recommended.
In January 2020 I contracted cellulitis. This was cleared using Clarithromycin which had a number of side-effects including high pulse rate, high temperature and skin rashes. Following that I had more sediment than previously in my catheter. Although Nitrofurantoin still cleared them, I had to take more of it than previously. I was not aware of this at first: and so I had a few blockages, during the daytime (previously they had all been after going to bed), usually cleared by manipulation of my catheter to loosen the sediment.
During this period I also had a few blockages where the narrow tube of my catheter becomes wider to connect to the tube from the leg bag and where the flow of urine decreases in speed, depositing any sediment. These were relatively easily cleared by manual manipulation. I have now returned to much the same condition as that before I contracted cellulitis, although I now take about 10x50mg tablets of Nitrofurantoin per month.
OTHER CAUSES OF CATHETER PROBLEMS
Not all blockages are caused by sediment. Sometimes the flow of urine has been obstructed by the end of the catheter pressing against my bladder wall. This can be fixed by moving the catheter sideways. I avoid lying on my catheter or leg bag tube and check to ensure there are no bends sharp enough for the tube to collapse.
My drainage system depends on gravity to flow. In bed I need to ensure that the system points downwards everywhere.
OTHER ISSUES WITH MY CATHETER
It has probably been the best option available but there have been problems:
It has probably caused some, if not most, of the fairly frequent urinary infections. These seem likely to have been at least partly the result of bacteria entering around my catheter site.
Another problem of my suprapubic catheter has been that there is often a small amount of leakage around the place where it enters me. I pull my incontinence pad (Abri San Premium 6) far enough up at the front to cover my catheter site.
How often should suprapubic catheters be changed? Changing a catheter usually leaves trauma around the site, additional leakage for a while and more opportunity for bacteria to enter and cause UTIs. I could not find a good answer as to why 12 weeks is the conventional period, so I tried a little longer. It worked to some extent, but after the catheter came out on one occasion I have returned to 12 weeks. Longer than that does appear to result in an increased risk of deterioration of the mechanism holding it in place.
For me a suprapubic catheter has probably been the best option available; despite many problems it has enabled me to get a night's sleep usually without interruptions and has enabled me to retain some independence by living at home. My overnight urine production averages about 2 litres - impractical to deal with using an intermittent urethral catheter.
Being confined to a wheelchair, the appearance of the leg bag is not an issue for me (I simply lay it on the upper parts of my legs) but it might be for those who are more active.
Compared with other ways of accommodating incontinence, I do not get much mess needing protection and cleaning - just a small amount of leakage around my catheter entry point.
My suprapubic catheter is an inexpensive way of dealing with incontinence. My pad is changed only once each day and costs around £10 for 36; washable unisex fixation knickers cost around £7 for 25 which will last at least two years.
Nurses tell me that they spend a considerable part of their time unblocking catheters, especially overnight. It is unfortunate that more attention is not given to preventing them.
Living with a Suprapubic Catheter
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