What to Do If You Can't Urinate After Surgery

The complete inability to urinate after surgery, a condition called urinary retention, is considered an emergency if you are no longer in the hospital and you are unable to produce any urine. It can occur for a variety of reasons.

causes of urinary retention
Verywell / Emily Roberts

It is important that you seek treatment immediately, from either your surgeon or an emergency medical facility. If the bladder is not emptied serious damage can be done to both your bladder and kidneys.


Signs include:

  • A noticeably full bladder; may be visible as abdominal swelling in thin people
  • Discomfort or pain due to a full bladder
  • Inability to urinate despite feeling the urge
  • Lower abdominal pain, particularly below the belly button

A really full bladder can be quite painful, but most people aren't familiar with what bladder pain feels like and may not be able to identify the cause of the pain, just that it is present. 

Aside from the pain, when the bladder can hold no more urine, the fluid backs up into the kidneys, which can cause damage if the pressure is not relieved quickly. In extreme cases, the bladder can actually rupture when it can hold no more urine.

If you notice you are unable to urinate or begin to experience pain because you are unable to urinate enough to empty your bladder and urine is building up, it is time to seek treatment.

Difficulty Emptying Bladder

A less serious form of urinary retention that can happen after surgery can cause a delay in getting started urinating, or it may feel as though the bladder is still full after a successful trip to the bathroom. This is not an emergency, but it should be discussed with your surgeon, especially if it persists.

Some patients are able to urinate, but they feel that their bladder isn't emptying completely. This should also be reported as it can lead to urinary tract infections. A change in medications can often correct bladder problems.


The inability to urinate after surgery is usually caused by a condition called neurogenic bladder, a type of bladder dysfunction that interferes with the nerve impulses from the brain to the bladder. The bladder does not receive the signal to empty and will continue to fill despite any pain or trauma that may occur.

For patients with no history of difficulty urinating prior to surgery, the problem is often attributed to a combination of risk factors that include abdominal surgery, general anesthesia, pain medications, and fluids given by IV during surgery.

In rare circumstances, a surgical error, such as accidentally severing one of the tubes that transport urine, may be causing the problem. This complication is very rare and is typically detected prior to leaving the hospital.

Less Common Causes

An inability to urinate after surgery may rarely stem from these causes:

  • Prostate enlargement causing chronic urinary retention because it interferes with the movement of urine from the bladder to the outside of the body
  • “Droopy” bladder in which they bladder may slip lower into the abdomen (most commonly in women who have had multiple children) creating problems with the movement of urine from the bladder to the outside of the body
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Nerve damage to the bladder due to surgery, trauma, childbirth
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Anticholinergic medications (commonly used for overactive bladder)
  • Antihistamine medications
  • Spinal cord injuries and defects
  • Blockage or compression of the urethra, the tube that removes urine from the bladder, by causes such as bladder stones or constipation.


The treatment for a full bladder that does not respond to repeated attempts to urinate is a urinary catheter, a sterile tube that is inserted through the urethra into the bladder in order to drain the urine out of the bladder.

The problem can be acute, a short-term but serious complication, or it can be chronic, an ongoing problem that persists for weeks, months. or longer. Patients who experience urinary retention may be instructed in methods to self-catheterize by medical staff, so the bladder can be drained as needed should the problem occur repeatedly.

The inability to urinate will typically pass within two weeks of surgery. If it persists beyond the recovery phase, your surgeon or family physician may order tests to determine what is causing the problem and the best course of treatment.

A Word From Verywell

A dramatic reduction in the amount of urine output should be cause for worry, especially if there is no clear reason. Urine should be produced numerous times a day, and with good hydration, some individuals urinate as frequently as hourly. A decrease can mean dehydration or some type of bladder problem. Seek medical attention if you have no or low urine output, with or without bladder pain.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merck Manual Professional Version. Urinary Retention. Updated July 2018.

  2. Palthe S, Dijkstra GA, Steffens MG. A case of spontaneous urinary bladder rupture secondary to urinary retention due to an urethral strictureUrol Case Rep. 2018;17:85–87. doi:10.1016/j.eucr.2018.01.009

  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Urinary Retention. Updated August 2014.

Additional Reading
  • Urinary Retention. The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library.