Urologic applications of botulinum toxin

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ABSTRACTThe neuromuscular blocker botulinum toxin has a wide variety of medical applications, including overactive bladder and neurogenic detrusor overactivity in patients in whom drug therapy fails or is not well tolerated. Botulinum toxin therapy for these conditions has been shown to be safe and effective in several large multicenter randomized controlled trials. Off-label uses in urology include detrusor external sphincter dyssynergia and pelvic pain syndromes.


  • Anticholinergic drugs have been the first-line therapy for neurogenic detrusor overactivity. If drug therapy failed, the next option was reconstructive surgery such as cystoplasty. Botulinum toxin injection may be an option in select patients.
  • Urinary tract infection and urinary retention requiring intermittent self-catheterization are the most common adverse events of botulinum toxin injection in trials of patients with neurogenic detrusor overactivity or idiopathic overactive bladder.
  • Small studies have shown that botulinum toxin injection for painful bladder syndrome/interstitial cystitis can improve pain, urinary frequency, and quality of life. But larger randomized controlled trials are needed.



Patients with loss of bladder control experience discomfort, embarrassment, personal care and health issues, and, often, significant pain, all with a decidedly negative impact on quality of life. Although some patients may find lifestyle modifications, drug therapy, and self-catheterization acceptable and effective, there is a clear need for more options.

Botulinum toxin, or onabotulinumtoxinA, is currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for neurogenic detrusor overactivity and overactive bladder refractory to drug therapy. Studies so far have shown botulinum toxin injection to be safe and effective for these conditions, and these results have led to interest in off-label uses, eg, for detrusor external sphincter dyssynergia (DESD), motor and sensory urgency, and painful bladder syndrome/interstitial cystitis (Table 1).

Although more data from clinical trials are needed, botulinum toxin injection offers patients a much-needed treatment option.


Seven serotypes identified

Discovered in 1897, botulinum toxin is a neurotoxin produced by the gram-positive, rod-shaped anaerobic bacterium Clostridium botulinum1 and is the most poisonous naturally occurring toxin known.2 Seven immunologically distinct antigenic serotypes have been identified (A, B, C1, D, E, F, and G),1 but only types A and B are available for clinical use.

Most research into potential therapeutic uses has focused on type A, which has the longest duration of action, a clinical advantage.3 Recently, work has been done to further characterize other serotypes and to isolate additional variants of botulinum toxin. For example, serotype E, the predominant serotype associated with foodborne botulism, is being studied in an effort to prevent future outbreaks.4

Our discussion focuses on clinical uses of the serotype A botulinum toxin preparation, which we will refer to simply as botulinum toxin.

Studies exploring how it works

Botulinum toxin exerts its effects by binding to peripheral cholinergic terminals, inhibiting release of acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction. Flaccid paralysis ensues as a result.

Results of animal studies have shed additional light on the specific actions of botulinum toxin A:

  • It may alter levels of nerve growth factor and transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 in rats, and this may provide an additional mechanism of reducing bladder detrusor overactivity.5
  • In addition to blocking acetylcholine release from motor neurons, it inhibits the release of neurotransmitters involved in bladder sensory afferent pathways.6
  • It inhibits the release of substance P and glutamate, neuropeptides involved in sensory and nociceptive pathways.6,7
  • It promotes apoptosis in prostatic tissue; however, this effect has not been shown in the bladder.3

The time necessary to recover function after botulinum toxin paralysis depends on the subtype of botulinum toxin as well as on the type of nerve terminal. Chemodenervation lasts from 3 to 6 months when the toxin is injected into the neuromuscular junction of skeletal muscle, and considerably longer (up to 1 year) when injected into the autonomic neurons of smooth muscle.2,6


Neurogenic detrusor overactivity involves involuntary contractions of the bladder resulting from spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and other neurologic conditions. An estimated 273,000 people in the United States have a spinal cord injury, and 81% of them have urologic symptoms ranging from areflexia to overactivity.8 From 75% to 100% of patients with multiple sclerosis have urologic symptoms, and detrusor overactivity is the most common.9

Detrusor overactivity can cause urinary urgency, urinary frequency, and urgency incontinence, significantly affecting quality of life and leading to skin breakdown, sacral ulcerations, and challenges with personal care.

Anticholinergic drugs have been the mainstay of therapy. If drug therapy failed, the next option was reconstructive surgery, often augmentation cystoplasty. Thus, botulinum toxin injection is an important advance in treatment options.

Studies that showed effectiveness

Botulinum toxin for neurogenic detrusor overactivity was first studied by Schurch et al.10 In their study, 200 U or 300 U was injected into the trigone of 21 patients with spinal cord injury and urgency incontinence managed with intermittent self-catheterization.10 At 6 weeks after injection, 17 of the 19 patients seen at follow-up visits were completely continent. Urodynamic evaluation revealed significant increases in maximum cystometric capacity and in volume at first involuntary detrusor contraction, and a decrease in detrusor voiding pressure. Of the 11 patients available for follow-up at 16 and 36 weeks, improvements in measures of incontinence and urodynamic function persisted.

In addition, two small randomized controlled trials11,12 showed significant increases in cystometric bladder capacity, significant improvement in quality-of-life measures, and reduction in episodes of urgency incontinence.

In 2011 and 2012, two multicenter double-blind randomized controlled trials reported on patients with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury with neurogenic detrusor overactivity inadequately managed with drug therapy. The patients were randomized to botulinum toxin injection (200 U or 300 U) or placebo injection.13,14 The primary end point for both studies was the change from baseline in episodes of urinary incontinence per week at week 6. Secondary end points were maximum cystometric capacity, maximum detrusor pressure during first involuntary detrusor contraction, and score on the Incontinence Quality of Life scale.15

In both studies, the mean number of urinary incontinence episodes per week was 33 at baseline. At week 6, Cruz et al14 found that patients who received botulinum toxin injection had significantly fewer episodes per week (21.8 fewer with 200 U, 19.4 fewer with 300 U) than those in the placebo group, who had 13.2 fewer episodes per week (P < .01). Ginsberg et al13 reported decreases in the mean number of episodes of urinary incontinence of 21, 23, and 9 episodes per week in the 200 U, 300 U, and placebo groups, respectively (P < .001). The patients who received botulinum toxin had statistically significant improvements in maximum cystometric capacity, maximum detrusor pressure during first involuntary detrusor contraction, and Incontinence Quality of Life scores compared with placebo (P < .001). Thirty-eight percent of patients in the treatment group were fully continent.13,14

Safety and adverse effects

The most frequently reported adverse events were urinary tract infection (24% of patients)13,14 and urinary retention requiring initiation of clean intermittent catheterization. In the study by Cruz et al,14 these were reported in 30% with 200 U, 42% with 300 U, and 12% with placebo, while in the study by Ginsberg et al13 they were reported in 35% with 200 U, 42% with 300 U, and 10% with placebo.

In a study of long-term safety and efficacy of botulinum toxin injection in patients with neurogenic detrusor overactivity, Kennelly et al16 found that patients undergoing repeat injections had sustained reductions in episodes of incontinence and increases in the maximum cystometric capacity and quality of life scores, with no increase in adverse events over time.16

But is it cost-effective?

While botulinum toxin injection may be safe and effective for neurogenic detrusor overactivity, is it cost-effective?

Carlson et al17 used a Markov State Transition model to assess the cost of refractory neurogenic detrusor overactivity in patients receiving botulinum toxin vs best supportive care (incontinence pads, medications, intermittent self-catheterization).17 They found that the injections were more expensive than supportive care but were cost-effective when considering the reduction in episodes of incontinence, the reduced need for incontinence products, and improvement in measures of quality of life.

What the evidence indicates

Trials of botulinum toxin injection for neurogenic detrusor overactivity have shown that it improves continence, maximum cystometric capacity, detrusor pressures, and quality of life. The main adverse effects are urinary tract infection and urinary retention requiring intermittent self-catheterization.

Although many patients with this condition are already self-catheterizing, the physician must discuss this before botulinum toxin therapy to ensure that the patient or a family member is able to perform catheterization. Studies have shown that patients have an increase in urinary tract infections after botulinum injections. But in these studies, a urinary tract infection was defined as 100,000 colony-forming units or the presence of leukocytosis with or without symptoms. It is important to remember that patients on intermittent catheterization have bacteriuria and should be treated only for symptomatic, not asymptomatic, bacteriuria.

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