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Urinary Retention - Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Urinary retention is when the body either can’t pass urine at all or can’t completely empty the bladder. It can be acute—a sudden inability to urinate, or chronic—a gradual inability to completely empty the bladder of urine. Discover more about its symptoms, causes and treatments here

Published by Jane Granger
Urinary Retention - Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

What are the types of urinary retention?

There are two quite distinct types of urinary retention:

Acute urinary retention

Acute (meaning severe and sudden on-set) which is typically caused by an obstruction such as a kidney or bladder stone and impedes the passing of any urine at all. It can be excruciatingly painful, disconcerting and even life-threatening so if you think you might have acute urinary retention, head directly to your nearest emergency department.

Chronic urinary retention

Chronic (meaning a condition that develops and worsens over time) which often goes unnoticed until it causes other symptoms such as UTIs and/or incontinence. The underlying issue is that the bladder isn’t fully emptying. While not life-threatening, it is a symptom that something isn’t right, so should be investigated.

Chronic symptoms and conditions can be hard to pick up as they can happen very slowly over an extended period.


Who gets chronic urinary retention and why?

Although anyone can be affected, middle-aged men are most at risk due to enlarged prostates.

In women, a condition called cystocele (where the bladder has shifted, dropped or been pulled out of position – then later by a drooped colon, a condition known as rectocele) is often the cause.


What are the symptoms of urinary retention?

As mentioned previously, the onset of chronic urinary retention can go unnoticed until other symptoms arise. These vary from person to person but can include:

  • Urinating 8 or more times a day
  • Waking up more than twice in the night to use the toilet
  • Difficulty starting the flow of urine
  • A weak or interrupted stream
  • Sensing the need to ‘go’ when you’ve just been
  • An urgent need to go, then passing very little urine
  • A sense of discomfort or increased pressure in the lower abdomen
  • Not really knowing when your bladder is full
  • Consciously straining or pushing to fully empty the bladder
  • Urge incontinence – a sudden and urgent need to urinate and not always making it to the toilet in time


What are the causes of chronic urinary retention?

Although anyone can be affected by urinary retention, middle-aged and older men are most at risk due to gradual enlargement of the prostate gland pressing against the urethra (the tube that transports urine from the bladder to exit the body) and restricting the flow.

While many men believe that a slower and weaker urine flow is just a part of ageing, if you’re experiencing this, you must have it checked out by your doctor. The enlargement could be a tumour that may or may not be cancer. You can read more in this article, titled Prostate Cancer and Male Urinary Incontinence

Among women, a condition called cystocele (a type of has shifted, dropped or been pulled out of position) is often the cause. A drooping colon, known as rectocele, can be the cause. Most prolapses occur when the , which supports the pelvic organs, becomes weak and damaged from childbirth or other pelvic trauma, lack of exercise and ageing. You can read more in this article, Types of Prolapse.

Muscle and nerve damage can also inhibit the bladder from fully emptying. This damage may have been acquired during childbirth, a pelvic injury, nerve disease or surgery.

Neurological conditions such as stroke, dementia, spinal cord and head injury, can repress the messages between the  of urinary retention.

An anaesthetic can also impact urinary function, including retention.


What are the treatments of Urine Retention?

For acute urinary retention, it’s most likely that a catheter will be inserted to push past the obstruction and drain the bladder. Further intervention may then be required to remove the blockage.

Because the causes of chronic urinary retention vary, so too do the diagnostics and treatments.

For example, if an enlarged prostate is identified as the cause and is treated to reduce the size, the pressure on the urethra will diminish and relieve any retention.

Prolapses can be corrected with surgery or even specifically prescribed exercises and, once things are back in place, the retention will be resolved.

Your doctor will ask about your specific symptoms, review any medications (some drugs are known to contribute to urinary retention) and ask about your toileting habits. It may be a good idea to keep a Bladder Diary for a few days before your appointment to ensure you can provide an accurate picture of what’s happening.

Other tests and imaging may be required, but your doctor will be able to explain the recommendation for your specific case.


How to manage incontinence due to chronic urine retention?

For women, the frequent and sudden urgency to pass urine can catch you out, leading to an involuntary leak. If you’re only losing a few drops or a small gush, a TENA liner may be all that’s required. These are the smallest of the TENA range, and like all of our products, are designed to handle the thinner, faster flow of a weak bladder, rapidly absorbing and locking away fluid, keeping you dry, odour free and feeling confident while the cause of your retention is being addressed.

For men, you may be experiencing Overflow Incontinence which is usually just a small quantity. For this, TENA has anatomically shaped products that fit snugly into the front of your underwear for discreet protection. There are TENA Shields and TENA Guards available in different absorbency levels. To find out which one is more suited for your individual needs, read about the differences between TENA Shields and Guards.

If you require more protection, including pants that look and feel like regular underwear, why not check out our Product Finder Tool, and Free Samples to find the product that best suits your needs.


Did you know?

Up to 1 in 4 people in Australia experience poor bladder control.

Squeeze your Pelvic Floor muscles 10 times, for 10 seconds in 10 second intervals, 3 times a day to increase your bladder control.

30 minutes of exercise a day can help stimulate bowel movements. Even light walking helps.



Asaleo Care makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. This information should be used only as a guide and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional, medical or other health professional advice.