If you can’t pass urine even though you feel the need to, and your bladder is full, that is known as urinary retention. It can last for a short time or a long time. It needs to be treated, as it can cause kidney damage or other serious complications.
Symptoms usually come on suddenly and may become very painful as you feel desperate to relieve your bladder, but can’t.
Acute urinary retention needs urgent medical attention and your bladder may need to be emptied using a urinary catheter, which is a long soft tube. See your doctor right away or go to the emergency department if you cannot urinate at all or you are in pain in your lower tummy or urinary tract area.
There are many different causes of urinary retention, but some of the most common are:
- recent surgery in the genital, prostate, rectal, pelvic or lower abdominal area
- medical conditions such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis
- injury to the bladder or urethra
- an obstruction in the urethra, for example with a urinary tract stone or problem with the prostate gland
- nerve problems
- weakened bladder muscles
- some medicines
- an infection
- a tumour in your pelvis, bladder or urethra
Sometimes urinary retention comes on more gradually and a person slowly notices that they cannot fully empty their bladder. This type of urinary retention may take months or years to develop and is not usually painful.
Looking after yourself
If you are having problems passing urine, there are a number of things you can do that may help manage the condition:
- Try urinating in a bath of warm water.
- Turn on the taps of the sink or basin and let the water trickle. Sometimes the sound of running water helps to start urination.
If you think you cannot urinate because of your medication, you should not stop taking your medicines until you have been advised it is safe to do so by your doctor.
If you are in pain, get advice on pain relief medicines you can take.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your urinary retention, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
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Last reviewed: March 2020