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What is urinary retention?

Urinary retention happens when the bladder can't empty urine. It can be an acute or chronic condition.

Causes of urinary retention

Urinary retention can be caused by:

  • a blockage in the urethra that stops urine from draining from the bladder. In older men, this can be because of an enlarged prostate gland. In women it may be because of a urethral stricture or a kinked or blocked urinary catheter.
  • nerve problems
  • the effects of medicines
  • weak bladder muscles.

Acute urinary retention

Acute urinary retention happens when the bladder suddenly stops emptying.

This can be life-treatening and need immediate emergency treatment.

Acute urinary retention can cause great pain and discomfort. It's more common in men than women.

Symptoms of acute urinary retention include:

  • being suddenly unable to pass urine
  • a painful, urgent need to pass urine
  • pain or discomfort in the lower part of the abdomen
  • bloating in the lower abdomen.

Chronic urinary retention

Chronic urinary retention happens when the bladder doesn't fully empty. The person will pass some urine but some will stay in the bladder. This type of retention happens over time and the person may not notice it's happening.

Symptoms of chronic urinary retention

  • urinary frequency - going to the toilet more often than normal
  • needing to go to the toilet but having trouble starting urine flow
  • a weak or interupted stream, i.e. it may stop and start, stop and start
  • needing to push to start the flow of urine
  • an urgent need to pass urine but only passing a bit when going to the toilet
  • a need to pass urine again soon after going
  • a mild or constant pain in the lower abdomen (stomach) or urinary tract
  • a urinary tract infection.

How does a health care professional manage urinary retention?

How a health care professional manages urinary retention depends on what the cause is. For acute unrinary retention, the urine may need to be drained using a urinary catheter. The person may need a catheter until the cause is treated, such as surgery for an enlarged prostate gland. If the cause can't be treated, the person may need a long-term urinary catheter.

Treatment of chronic urinary retention depends on what is causing it, how much urine is retained and the long-term risk of complications. Some people may only need to be monitored but others may need intermittent or long-term urinary catheters.

If the person you support has a spinal unjury above T6, make sure you know the signs and symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia.

Need more help? Call the National Continence Helpline on 18OO 33 OO 66 and talk to a continence nurse advisor.

Take the Quiz

Question 1

Acute urinary retention:

is never painful

should be ignored

is when someone can't pass urine

means the person should be taken to the toilet less often.

Question 2

Urinary retention can be caused by:

a blockage in the urethra

nerve problems

weak pelvic floor muscles

all of the above.

Question 3

A symptom of chronic urinary retention can be:

urinary tract infections (UTIs)

passing large amounts of urine

a strong flow of urine


Question 4

Treatment for urinary retention:

depends on the cause

means removing the bladder

treatment is never necessary

includes giving the person extra fluids.

This information is not a substitute for independent professional advice.