Female Urinary Retention

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Continuing Education Activity

Urinary retention, or the inability to voluntarily void urine, is one of the most prevalent presenting urologic complaints in the emergency department. Typically, it is diagnosed when there is a high post-void residual volume. Post-Void residual volume measurement is usually done using ultrasound and provides an estimate of the amount of urine remaining in the bladder after urinating. Two of the most common causes of chronic urinary retention in women are bladder muscle dysfunction and obstruction. This activity reviews the evaluation and management of urinary retention in females. It highlights the role of the interprofessional team in collaborating to provide well-coordinated care and enhance outcomes for affected patients.


  • Identify the causes of urinary retention in females.
  • Review risk factors for urinary retention in females.
  • Describe treatment options for urinary retention in females.
  • Explain the importance of improving coordination amongst the interprofessional team to enhance care for females affected by urinary retention.


Urinary retention is one of the most prevalent urological complaints resulting in patients presenting to the emergency department. It is the inability to pass urine and can be acute or chronic. Typically, diagnosis is via a high post-void residual; post-void residual measurement is by using a bladder scanner or ultrasound to estimate the amount of urine remaining in the bladder after urinating.  Urinary retention presents much more commonly in men than in women due to benign prostatic hyperplasia.  Two of the most common causes in women of chronic urinary retention are bladder muscle dysfunction and obstruction.[1][2][3][4]


Common causes of urinary retention, both acute and chronic, include but are not limited to medications, nerve injury during surgery, cystotomy during operation, obstruction (vaginal hematoma, vaginal packing, sling, urethral foreign body, pelvic organ prolapse, urethral injury, constipation, failure of pelvic floor relaxation). Medications used during and after surgery can cause urinary retention, atropine, glycopyrrolate, bupivacaine, etc. The addition of opioids for postoperative pain can further exacerbate retention.[5][1][6][7]


As stated above, urinary retention is rare in women and much more common in men due to benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).  There are an estimated 3 cases per 100000 women every year, and the female to male ratio is 1 to 13. Compare this with men, where about one-third over the age of 80 will have acute urinary retention.[8]


Voluntary urination requires coordination between muscles in the pelvic floor, bladder, and urethra and the nerves innervating them.  Any disruption along the pathway can cause urinary retention.  Even if this pathway is coordinating and working properly, mechanical obstruction along this pathway will also cause urinary retention. Obstruction can result from the urethral channel undergoing narrowing or possessing increased muscle tone. Neurological impairment can be due to incomplete relaxation of the urinary sphincter, inefficient detrusor muscle contraction, spinal cord infarction/demyelination, epidural abscess, epidural metastasis, Guillain-Barre, neuropathy, stroke, or trauma to the spinal cord. Trauma to the lower GU tract, the pelvis or, the urethra can also cause obstruction. Obstruction in women may result from constipation, pelvic organ prolapse, pelvic masses, or kidney stones. A urinary tract infection can cause swelling or inflammation of the urethra; this can cause compression of the urethra and lead to urinary retention.[9][10][11][12]

History and Physical

History and physical should focus on any history of urinary retention and symptoms involving the lower genitourinary (GU) tract. The symptoms can be discomfort with urination, hematuria, urethral discharge, foul-smelling urine, or lower abdominal pain. The clinician should ask about previous trauma, surgeries, or radiation to the pelvic and GU area.  To evaluate possible other causes in certain patient populations, whether the patient has a history of back pain, fever, IV drug use, or other neurological symptoms could point to serious causes of urinary retention.  All medications, including OTC, prescription, and herbal, should be reviewed to determine whether side effects of these could be causing urinary retention.[13][14] Physical exam should include at least lower abdominal palpation, rectal exam, pelvic exam, and neurological exam.  On palpation of the lower abdomen, the patient may have discomfort, or the bladder may be palpable. On the rectal exam, you want to check for masses, fecal impaction, perineal sensation, and sphincter tone. Perform a pelvic exam to discover tumors, urethral diverticulum, cystocele, rectocele, which cause urinary retention. A neurological exam could also reveal other deficits that may pinpoint where the lesion may be.[15][16][17]


A urinalysis and culture are necessary for all patients with urinary retention.  This urine may have to be obtained via catheterization if the patient is unable to voluntarily void.  Other lab work, imaging, and tests should be ordered based on the provider's suspicion for the cause of retention, history, and physical exam findings.  The diagnosis of urinary retention is commonly made via obtaining a post-void residual.  If the patient can void on her own, a bladder scan is utilized after the patient urinates to evaluate the amount of urine still in the bladder.  More than 300 mL of urine in the bladder after voiding suggests urinary retention.[18] If the patient is unable to urinate, catheter placement may necessary.  If more than 400 mL of urine passes after catheterization in the first 15 minutes, this suggests urinary retention, and the catheter may remain in place.  Between volumes of 200 mL and 400 mL, the catheter may be removed immediately or left in place depending on the clinical scenario.  Under 200 mL, the catheter can be removed, and urinary retention is unlikely.[8][19][20]

Treatment / Management

Once the physician has determined the diagnosis of urinary retention, they should perform bladder decompression via catheterization. In patients who cannot void at all, specialists prefer urinary catheterization, but one can also perform suprapubic catheterization if there are contraindications to urethral catheterization.  Contraindications to urethral catheterization include recent urological surgery.  If the patient requires suprapubic catheterization, someone trained in the procedure should perform the procedure.[21][10][22]  Whether a urinary catheter remains in place is determined by the clinical scenario.  If the physician determines the cause of retention to resolve relatively quickly, the patient can be taught how to straight cath themselves intermittently and discharged home.  If the patient cannot straight cath themselves for any reason, or the cause is thought to be ongoing, the catheter should remain in place. Most patients with urinary retention are manageable as an outpatient.  Indications for admission include sepsis caused by the retention, malignancy as the cause of obstruction, acute myelopathy, or acute renal failure.[8][23]

Differential Diagnosis

Causes are of urinary retention and conditions that may mimic urinary retention include but are not limited to obstruction at any point along the lower GU tract or nerve dysfunction. A blockage may result from pelvic masses, constipation, urethral stone, infection-causing urethral inflammation, and stenosis, urethral diverticulum, and neurological dysfunction.[24]


The prognosis of urinary retention is fair if recognized early and treated promptly. Some of the complications associated with prolonged urinary retention are renal insufficiency, urinary tract infections, and injury to the upper tracts.[6][8][25][26]


Complications of urinary retention include but are not limited to acute kidney injury and urinary tract infection.  There are also complications with catheterization, both suprapubic and urethral.  Both can result in infection. Urethral catheterization can result in urethral injury during insertion.  Suprapubic catheterization can result in trauma to the bladder/colon and overlying skin infection.[23][27]

Another important complication seen in clinical practice is post-obstructive diuresis. This phenomenon is characterized by the excretion of large amounts of salt and water once the obstruction resolves; this may be a normal physiological response to the obstruction, but physicians should keep a close eye on patients as some continue to excrete large amounts of urine and are at risk for dehydration and metabolic abnormalities.[28]


Further testing and evaluation depend on physical exam findings. The clinician should perform a gynecological exam or obtain a consult to identify vaginal defects. The clinician should consult neurosurgery for spinal trauma and urology for urodynamic studies.[8]

Deterrence and Patient Education

Urinary retention is the inability to pass urine and can be acute or chronic. Although uncommon in women when compared to men, sill this can lead to significant issues like not urinating at all when the problem is not recognized early. Patients should speak with their doctors if they have any issues urinating, dribbling of urine intermittently, foul smell of urine. Patients should also be aware of medications that can cause urinary retention.[1][6][8][20]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Diagnosis and treatment of urinary retention require an interprofessional team effort. Primary care physicians, emergency department physicians, and hospitalists should be able to recognize the early signs and symptoms of urinary retention. Nurses should monitor the urine output in hospitalized patients and report to physicians if they notice a decrease or complete absence of urine output. Consultation with a urologist being obtained in advanced cases. Pharmacists also have a role in recognizing the medications, which can cause urinary retention and coordinating efforts with the prescribing clinician.[3][4][8] Unfortunately, despite optimal treatment, the recurrence of urinary retention is frequent. [Level 5]

Article Details

Article Author

Joseph Dougherty

Article Editor:

Prashanth Rawla


7/13/2021 11:15:55 AM



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