Open Access Case report

Autonomic dysreflexia in a tetraplegic patient due to a blocked urethral catheter: spinal cord injury patients with lesions above T-6 require prompt treatment of an obstructed urinary catheter to prevent life-threatening complications of autonomic dysreflexia

Subramanian Vaidyanathan1*, Bakul Soni1, Tun Oo1, Peter Hughes2, Gurpreet Singh3 and Kamesh Pulya4

Author Affiliations

1 Regional Spinal Injuries Centre, Southport and Formby District General Hospital, Town Lane, Southport, PR8 6PN, UK

2 Department of Radiology, Southport and Formby District General Hospital, Town Lane, Southport, PR8 6PN, UK

3 Department of Urology, Southport and Formby District General Hospital, Town Lane, Southport, PR8 6PN, UK

4 Department of Cardiology, Southport and Formby District General Hospital, Town Lane, Southport, PR8 6PN, UK

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International Journal of Emergency Medicine 2012, 5:6  doi:10.1186/1865-1380-5-6

Published: 1 February 2012

Abstract

Background

The Manchester Triage System is commonly used as the triage system in emergency departments of the UK. As per the Manchester Triage System, patients presenting with retention of urine to the accident and emergency department are categorized to yellow, which denotes that the ideal maximum time to first contact with a treating clinician will be 60 min. Cervical spinal cord injury patients, in whom urinary catheter is blocked, may develop suddenly headache, sweating, high blood pressure, cardiac dysrhythmia, convulsions, intracranial bleed, and acute neurogenic pulmonary oedema as a result of autonomic dysreflexia due to a distended bladder.

Case presentation

A 46-year-old male with C-6 tetraplegia developed urinary retention because of a blocked catheter. He was seen immediately on arrival in the spinal injuries unit. The blocked catheter was removed and a new catheter was about to be inserted. Then this patient said that the ceiling lights were very bright and glaring. Five milligrams of Nifedipine was given sublingually. This patient started having fits involving his head, face, neck and shoulders with loss of consciousness. A 14-French silicone Foley catheter was inserted per urethra without any delay and 300 ml of clear urine was drained. This patient recovered consciousness within 5 min. Computed tomography of the brain revealed no focal cerebral or cerebellar abnormality. There was no intra-cranial haemorrhage.

Conclusion

This case illustrates that spinal cord injury patients with lesion above T-6, who develop retention of urine because of a blocked catheter, may look apparently well, but these patients can develop suddenly life-threatening autonomic dysreflexia. Therefore, spinal cord injury patients, who present to the accident and emergency department or spinal units with a blocked urinary catheter, should be seen urgently although their vital signs may be stable on arrival. Increasing the awareness of staff in emergency departments regarding autonomic dysreflexia as well as education of the patient and carers will be useful in preventing this complication in persons with spinal cord injury.