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Chronic urinary retention in women

Leslie M Rickey, MD, MPH
Section Editor
Linda Brubaker, MD, FACOG
Deputy Editor
Kristen Eckler, MD, FACOG


Chronic urinary retention (CUR) is the accumulation of urine in the bladder that results from incomplete or inadequate bladder emptying. Incomplete bladder emptying is most commonly described and measured as the volume of urine left in the bladder after voiding, also known as the postvoid residual. The two common causes of CUR are bladder muscle dysfunction (detrusor underactivity) and obstruction. CUR is generally a gradual process.

This topic will review the etiology, evaluation, and treatment options for women with CUR. Issues of acute urinary retention and postoperative urinary retention are discussed separately. (See "Acute urinary retention" and "Postoperative urinary retention in women".)


Clinically relevant CUR is the accumulation of urine that results in adverse clinical outcome in the absence of intervention [1]. CUR is typically determined by measuring a postvoid residual urine volume (PVR). PVR is defined by the International Continence Society as the volume of urine left in the bladder at the completion of micturition [2]. The American Urological Association (AUA) Quality Improvement and Patient Safety committee defined CUR as "an elevated postvoid residual (PVR) of >300 mL that has persisted for at least six months documented on two or more separate occasions" [3]. However, the authors acknowledge that no single PVR value defines CUR in all individuals. Further, the AUA definition of CUR relates specifically to their proposed treatment algorithm, and the term CUR will be used in this article to more broadly encompass incomplete bladder emptying. (See 'Diagnosis' below.)


Normal voiding requires coordinated urethral and pelvic floor muscle relaxation followed by bladder contraction [2]; any disruption to these actions can result in urinary retention. The voiding reflex is triggered in the pontine micturition center and leads to relaxation of the external striated urethral sphincter (via sympathetic innervation from the hypogastric nerve) and pelvic floor muscles (via somatic innervation by the pudendal nerve) (figure 1) [4]. The resultant drop in urethral pressure is followed by contraction of the bladder detrusor muscle, which is mediated by parasympathetic innervation from the pelvic plexus. Incomplete emptying can result from abnormal function anywhere along the above pathway or when there is obstruction at the outlet level.


Prevalence — As the diagnosis of CUR requires testing such as postvoid residual (PVR) or urodynamic assessment, prevalence estimates come from the subpopulation of women referred for specialty evaluation. Estimates of CUR in women from the general population are difficult to obtain because symptoms of incomplete emptying and obstructed flow do not reliably predict CUR in women [5]. In studies that reported PVR in women presenting with a variety of lower urinary tract symptoms, 8 to 9 percent of patients were found to have PVR of ≥100 mL and up to 5 percent had PVR ≥150 mL [6,7]. (See 'Diagnosis' below.)

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Nov 14, 2017.
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