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Urinary Retention

What is urinary retention?

Urinary retention is a condition where a person is unable to empty their bladder fully. There are two kinds of urinary retention:

  • Acute urinary retention: This is a short-term condition, which often comes on suddenly and needs to be treated immediately. When a person has acute urinary retention, they are completely unable to urinate even when their bladder is full.
  • Chronic urinary retention: This is a long-term condition that stops people emptying their bladder fully. People with chronic urinary retention can urinate, but have issues with their bladder not emptying fully.

What are the symptoms of urinary retention?

Water retention symptoms vary depending on whether you are experiencing acute or chronic urinary retention.

Acute urinary retention is very painful and is likely to also include abdominal bloating due to the build-up of urine. If you are completely unable to pass urine even when your bladder feels full and you’re also in a lot of pain, you should seek medical help as soon as possible.

Chronic urinary retention doesn’t always have noticeable symptoms. In time, however, it can lead to other conditions such as urinary incontinence or a urinary tract infection (UTI) due to a build-up of bacteria.

If you have one or both of these issues, combined with a need to urinate more frequently, difficulty urinating, or an interrupted stream when in the middle of urinating, you may well have chronic urinary retention. You may also experience some abdominal pain or bladder pain after urination.

If you suspect you have urinary retention, you should get it checked out by your doctor.

What are the causes of urinary retention?

The causes of urinary retention in females and males include the following:

  • A blockage of the urethra, such as a narrowing of the urethra, a bulging of the bladder or rectum into the vagina in women, or urinary tract stones
  • Certain medications, such as antihistamines (for treating allergies), anticholinergics/antispasmodics (used to treat urinary incontinence, muscle cramps and spasms), and tricyclic antidepressants (for anxiety and depression).
  • Weakened bladder muscles
  • Nerve problems
  • Constipation

Men in their 50s and 60s may experience urinary retention due to benign prostatic hyperplasia, which causes an enlarged prostate (but not due to cancer). The enlarged prostate gland can push against the urethra and prevent the bladder emptying completely.  

It is also possible to experience urinary retention after surgery, particularly after surgery to the urinary system.

How can you treat urinary retention?

Urinary retention treatment depends on whether acute or chronic urinary retention is being treated.

With acute urinary retention, it’s crucial that the bladder is emptied as soon as possible. This is done by a catheter, either inserted into the urethra or directly through the skin if the urethra is blocked. When the bladder is empty, your doctor can begin tests to work out what caused the acute urinary retention in the first place.

Chronic urinary retention doesn’t require emergency treatment like the acute version does, but it still needs to be treated to prevent damage to the kidneys. If your doctor thinks your urinary retention is due to a medication you are currently taking, he or she may alter the dose to see if that makes a difference.

Urinary retention medications are available if you are a man suffering from urinary retention as a result of benign prostatic hyperplasia. A number of medications are available that relax the muscles around the urethra and prostate to make urination easier. These include tamsulosin (Flomax), terazosin (Hytrin), tadalafil (Cialis), alfuzosin (Uroxatral), doxazosin (Cardura), and silodosin (Rapaflo).

It is also possible to have one of two procedures that widen the urethra. Otherwise, there are other surgical options for chronic urinary retention which your doctor can advise you on if they are relevant to you.

What can you do to help prevent urinary retention?

The best way to try to prevent urinary retention in women and men is to treat the underlying conditions that might cause it.

Taking water retention medication to relax the muscles around the urethra and prostate can help to prevent urinary retention in men with benign prostatic hyperplasia.

If your urinary retention is caused by constipation, making changes to your diet and lifestyle can often help.

If you have urinary retention caused by weak bladder muscles, doing some pelvic floor strengthening exercises can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does retention mean?

Urinary retention is when a person is unable to empty their bladder fully, meaning some urine is retained in the bladder.

What causes urinary retention?

Urinary retention can be caused by a blockage to the urethra, as a side effect of certain medications, weakened bladder muscles or nerve problems. See above for more information.

* Please note results, timeframe and individual responses to treatments may vary from person to person. If you do need medical advice you should always speak to a doctor, pharmacist or appropriate medical professional.