Palliation of Bladder Spasms

  • Elise De MD
  • Pablo Gomery MD
  • Leah B. Rosenberg MD

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Background:  Bladder spasms induced by involuntary bladder contractions are a distressing symptom affecting 7-27% of men and 9-43% of women (1).  Seriously ill patients may develop bladder spasms as a complication from genitourinary malignancies, indwelling catheters, or other medical issues. For some, these contractions may be imperceptible and only appreciated on urodynamic testing; for others, they can be incapacitating and associated with urinary incontinence.

Differential Diagnosis:  Common etiologies of bladder spasms include a urinary tract infection (UTI), ingestion of chemical irritants like diet soda or caffeine, constipation, obstruction of the bladder outflow tract (e.g. non-emptying catheter from blood clots), disinhibition from interruption of upper motor neurons, or irritation of the detrusor muscle from a tumor, catheter, or intramural stone (2). Medications can also lead to spasms either by bladder irritation (e.g. diuretics) or disruption of the detrusor muscle or bladder outlet (e.g. opioids, anticholinergics, benzodiazepines, NSAIDs) (3,4).  See Fast Fact #287.

Clinical Evaluation of Bladder Spasms: 

  1. Determine if the bladder is emptying properly.  If not, consider urethral catheterization (see below).
  • In the inpatient setting, a portable ultrasound can be used to check the post-void residual (PVR) urine in the bladder.  Of note, PVRs obtained by portable ultrasounds can be difficult to interpret. In general, clinicians should look for an acute increase in PVR values (e.g. from 200 mL to 450 mL) in the setting of acute bladder spasm(s), rather than an arbitrary threshold volume (5).
  • In the home or hospice setting, physical examination of the suprapubic area for bladder fullness and patient report can guide the non-hospital clinician in evaluating bladder emptying.
  1. Evaluate for easily reversible causes – e.g. stop offending agents, treat constipation.
  2. Exclude UTI with a urinalysis (UA). If an indwelling catheter is in place, it should be changed, and the culture sent from the new catheter as soon as it is placed. 

Clinical Management:  Multiple non-pharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies exist and may be used in combination.  In general, start with the least invasive approach.  Diagnostic imaging and/or a urology referral may be warranted in refractory cases, especially when acute urinary retention is encountered (6). 

Urethral catheterization:  most experts prefer intermittent catheterization for ambulatory patients with longer prognoses to minimize infection risk. In moribund patients who are dying, indwelling catheterization is often preferred by patients, clinicians, and caregivers (1,7).  Caregivers should be informed of the following catheter management tips:

  • Pull gently on the tubing so the tip is not pushing against the bladder wall.
  • Ensure appropriate catheter drainage by irrigating with saline, elevating and dropping the tubing to minimize airlocks, and avoiding large uphill loops which may impede drainage by gravity.
  • Consider upsizing catheter to improve drainage.
  • Palpate the catheter for hardness and consider changing to a softer catheter with a shorter tip.
  • Use securing devices or tape to prevent pulling of the tubing against the bladder neck (7,8).

Interventional Procedures:

  • Onabotulinum toxin injection to the detrusor muscle may improve spasms even in the setting of an indwelling catheter (13). Urinary retention is a known side effect.
  • Surgical resection of bladder tumors or lithotripsy of stones.
  • Pelvic physical therapy:  consider when hypertonic levator muscle dysfunction is source of discomfort.
  • Other:  use of intravesical baclofen or bupivacaine infused via an indwelling catheter has been reported, as have nerve blocks (14). A pessary can be considered if anterior vaginal wall prolapse is present (requires trained fitter).


  1. Gormley EA, Lightner DJ, Burgio KL, et al. AUA/SUFU guideline: Diagnosis and treatment of overactive bladder (Non-neurogenic) in adults. J Urol 2014;188:2455-63.
  2. Griffiths D. Neural control of micturition in humans: a working model. Nat Rev Urol 2015;12:695-705.
  3. Verhamme KMC, Sturkenboom CJM, Stricker BH, Bosch R: Drug-induced urinary retention – incidence, management and prevention. Drug Safety 2008: 31;373-388.
  4. Gupte KP and Wu Wenchen. Inpact of anticholinergic load of medications on the length of stay of cancer patients in hospice care. International Journal of Pharmacy Practice 2015; 23:192–198.
  5. Asimakopoulos AD, De Nunzio C, Kocjancic E, et al. Measurement of post-void residual urine. Neurourol Urodyn 2016;35:55-7.
  6. Barrett DM, Wein AJ. Voiding dysfunction. Diagnosis, classification, and management. In: Gillenwater JY, et al, eds. Adult and Pediatric Urology, 2e. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Year Book, 1991, pp. 1001-99.
  7. Ellershaw J, Ward C. Care of the dying patient: the last hours or days of life. BMJ 2003; 326:30-4.
  8. Newman DK. The indwelling urinary catheter: principles for best practice. J Wound Ostomy Continence Nurs. 2007 Nov-Dec. 34(6):655-61
  9. Thompson IMLauvetz R. Oxybutynin in bladder spasm, neurogenic bladder, and enuresis. Urology 1976;8:452-4.
  10. Abrams P Kelleher C, Staskin D, et al. Combination treatment with mirabegron and solifenacin in patients with overactive bladder: efficacy and safety results from a randomised, double-blind, dose-ranging, phase 2 study (Symphony). World J Urol 2017;35:827-838.
  11. Shi CW, Asch SM, Fielder E. Usage Patterns of Over-the-counter Phenazopyridine (Pyridium) J Gen Intern Med 2003; 18: 281–287.
  12. Wade DT, Robson P, House H, et al. A preliminary controlled study to determine whether whole-plant cannabis extracts can improve intractable neurogenic symptoms. Clin Rehabil 2003;17:21-9.
  13. Chiu B, Tai HC, Chung SD, et al: Botulinum Toxin A for Bladder Pain Syndrome/ Interstitial Cystitis. Toxins 2016;8:pii.
  14. Wallace E, Twomey M, Victory R, et al. Intravesical baclofen, bupivacaine, and oxycodone for the relief of bladder spasm. J Pall Care 2013;29:49-51.

Authors’ Affiliations: Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Massachusetts

Conflict of Interest: None

Version History:  Originally edited by Sean Marks MD; first electronically published in July 2017