Advice & Support
Living with Incontinence

Is urinary retention dangerous?

Urinary retention, the inability to empty the bladder, can be acute or chronic, and yes, acute urinary retention can be life threatening, so you must seek immediate medical attention.
Published by Jane Granger
Is urinary retention dangerous?

Acute versus chronic urinary retention

The term ‘acute’ describes a symptom or condition that has a severe and sudden on-set. In the case of urinary retention, this is typically caused by a kidney or bladder stone obstructing the flow of urine. 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.

A ‘chronic’ condition is one that develops and worsens over time. In the case of urinary retention, it means that the bladder is becoming less efficient at completely emptying when you urinate. 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. The first sign of chronic urinary retention may be incontinence or repeated Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)





What are the symptoms of urinary retention?

  • The symptoms of chronic urinary retention vary among individuals 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 to the toilet when you’ve just been
  • A sudden and urgent need to urinate, feeling like your bladder is full, then passing very little
  • A sense of discomfort or increased pressure in the lower abdomen
  • Not knowing when your bladder is full
  • Consciously straining or pushing to empty the bladder fully
  • 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, middle-aged and older men are most at risk due to a 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 prolapse where the bladder 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 pelvic floor muscle, 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 bladder and brain and be the cause of urinary retention.

    An anaesthetic can also impact urinary function, including retention.

    Diagnosis and treatment 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.

    Incontinence and 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 and you can read about the differences here.

    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.




    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.