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The bladder is an organ that's part of the urinary system. Urine is stored in the bladder until it is pushed out and emptied from the body. Sometimes the bladder does not empty all the way. This is called urinary (or urine) retention. Urine might be retained if there is an obstruction or stricture (narrowing) in or around the bladder, or when muscles in or around the bladder are weak. Certain types and locations of tumors, certain medications, being dehydrated, or having constipation can also cause urinary retention.
Urine retention can be uncomfortable and symptoms might include:
It's important to be checked if you have symptoms because urine that stays in your bladder for longer than it's supposed to could grow bacteria (become infected).
If your cancer care team thinks you might have urinary retention, they will order tests. Some of these tests include bladder ultrasound, cystoscopy, CT scans, urodynamic tests (measure urine output in different ways), or electromyography (an outpatient procedure that uses electric sensors to measure muscle and nerve activity around the bladder).
There are different ways to manage urine retention. Common ways include surgery to repair or strengthen the bladder, using a bladder catheter to drain urine, dilating or widening the urethra (the duct that urine flows through when emptied) called having urethral dilation or stents, and giving certain medications.
Inserting a catheter in the bladder can help relieve bladder fullness and help prevent damage. Sometimes it's necessary for patients to learn how to manage bladder drainage by inserting a catheter on your own. If using a catheter is needed, depending on the cause of the retention, it might be for a short or extended period of time. It's important to follow instructions for inserting a catheter to help prevent infection. You'll also likely be taught to track how much fluid you're drinking and how to measure urine drainage (output).
This might be done if there is an obstruction or stricture in the urethra where urine flows through to be emptied. Dilating means the urethra is widened, using a small catheter or tube. A stent is a small catheter or tube that is inserted and left in place. Dilating can be done on its own or when a stent is needed. This is typically done as an outpatient or during an office visit with local anesthesia. The stent may be temporary or permanent to help drain the bladder.
Certain drugs can be given to help relax the bladder muscles. In men, some medications also help relax prostate muscles to relieve urinary retention symptoms.
If tumors are in or around the bladder, surgery may help reduce any obstruction to the urethra and decrease urinary retention symptoms. For certain problems in the urethra, a urethrotomy uses incisions or a laser to open the stricture.
In some women, the tissue that supports the bladder and vagina areas can weaken and stretch, causing what's called a prolapse. A prolapse can be called a cystocele (between a woman's bladder and vaginal wall) or rectocele (front wall of the rectum bulges against the posterior of the vagina) depending on the area affected. The prolapse can often be repaired which involves the area being surgically "lifted."
Some men who have a non-cancerous condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia might have surgery to remove excess tissue that is causing urinary blockage.
Here are some things that may help make urine retention less of a problem:
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Brown, C. A Guide to Oncology Symptom Management. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2015.
McDonough RC, Ryan ST. Diagnosis and management of lower urinary tract dysfunction. Surgical Clinics. 2016;96(3):441-452.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIH). Urinary retention. Accessed at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/urologic-diseases/urinary-retention on September 17, 2019.
Wound Ostomy and Continence Nurses Society (WOCN). Reversible Causes of Acute/transient Urinary Incontinence: A Guide for Patients. Available through https://www.wocn.org.
Last Revised: February 1, 2020
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