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Inability to Urinate Due to Hospitalization

By Oren Traub, MD, PhD, Departments of Internal Medicine and Adult Hospital Medicine, Pacific Medical Centers

People staying in the hospital may become unable to empty their bladder completely or become unable to urinate at all (see Problems Due to Hospitalization). This problem, called urinary retention, may occur because people

  • Are in pain after surgery

  • Are taking drugs that cause urinary retention

  • Have to stay in bed a long time (bed rest)

Urinary retention occurs more commonly among men over 50 because an enlarged prostate (benign prostate hyperplasia), which interferes with urination, becomes more common as men age, especially after age 50.

Urinary retention can increase the risk of developing a urinary tract infection and can cause kidney problems.

Prevention of Urinary Retention in the Hospital

Hospital staff members try to identify people who are at risk of developing urinary retention so that they can take steps to prevent it. Generally, risk is increased in older people and in people who have or have had certain disorders, including an enlarged prostate, urinary incontinence, severe constipation, or disorders that affect the nerves involved in urination (such as a stroke, spinal cord injury, or tumor).

If urinary retention is a risk, staff members may do the followings:

  • Set up a schedule for urination, when a staff member comes every few hours to remind people to urinate

  • Provide help as needed in getting to a toilet and/or provide a bedside commode or bedpan

  • Do tests (such as ultrasonography of the bladder) to determine whether people are retaining urine

  • Review the drugs people are taking to check whether any are causing or contributing to urinary retention

  • Encourage people to get out of bed and walk around whenever possible

To prevent urinary retention, people should go to a toilet when they feel the urge to urinate. When urinating, people should take time to empty their bladder completely.

If people cannot urinate at all or are retaining a large amount of urine, a hospital staff member may pass a flexible tube (catheter) through the urethra and into the bladder to drain the urine. Because this catheter may increase the risk of developing a urinary tract infection, it is removed as soon as possible. If the problem persists, people are discharged from the hospital with the catheter still in the bladder and are scheduled to see a urologist for evaluation and treatment.