Living with a urinary catheter

What is urinary catheterisation?

Urinary catheterisation is a medical procedure involving the introduction of a catheter – which is a thin flexible tube – into the bladder to drain urine. This can be done by passing the catheter in and out of the bladder, and is called intermittent catheterisation (see ‘Intermittent self catheterisation (ISC)’). Many people whose bladder fails to empty completely are taught to do clean intermittent self catheterisation (CISC). An indwelling catheter is used when continuous bladder drainage is needed; it stays in the bladder by means of a self-retaining balloon. Indwelling catheters can be used short-term (less than 30 days) or long-term (more than 30 days).


A doctor explains what urinary catheterisation is and talks about the different materials that...

A doctor explains what urinary catheterisation is and talks about the different materials that...

Urinary catheterisation is undertaken to empty the bladder, to drain urine from the bladder. And this is a very ancient art. The history of urinary catheterisation makes a very fascinating story, going way back in papers that were written by the Chinese and Egyptians well into BC times.
And what is it exactly? You said why it’s used.
Yes, when the bladder fails to empty, it fills up and has to be drained. And if the bladder fails to empty, it gets very distended and painful. So urinary catheterisation is being undertaken to drain the bladder and, in the ancient times, they used reeds. They used leaves from the onion plant, Allium fistulosum, which has hollow leaves. A bronze catheter was found at Pompeii. And that was used by the surgeon there. 
I’m tracing its history. They’ve used gold and silver and of course the great discovery was rubber. But it took them a long time to discover how to use rubber. And it was the French who discovered that you could mould rubber using ether, and then they’ve produced the first gum elastic catheter in about 1790. Of course, nowadays we’re using polymers and silicones for making catheters.


Indwelling catheters

Urethral catheterisation is the usual method of draining urine. The catheter is passed through the urethra (the tube through which urine passes), which is the natural route that urine normally leaves the body (see ‘Indwelling catheters: urethral catheters’).

Suprapubic catheterisation is the alternative approach and involves a small operation to form an artificial track directly into the bladder through the lower abdomen. This is the preferred route when long-term catheterisation is needed (see ‘Indwelling catheters: suprapubic catheters’).

When catheters are used

A urinary catheter can be used on a short- or long-term basis. It might be used short term:

  • when something is stopping a person emptying their bladder in the normal way (for example if the urethra has become blocked by a bladder stone)
  • to drain the bladder immediately before or after an operation, such as a hysterectomy or prostatectomy
  • to monitor the urine output of someone who is unconscious or recovering from surgery
  • to drain the bladder while a woman is giving birth (e.g. before a caesarean birth)
  • to clear the bladder of any blood clots and debris following injury to the bladder

A urinary catheter might be used long term:

  • to treat urinary incontinence (leaking urine or not being able to control urination) if all other treatments have failed
  • to treat urinary retention (being unable to empty the bladder when needed)
  • when there is obstruction in the urinary tract (such as a bladder stone or, in men, a swollen prostate gland) and surgery or medication can’t be used to remove the obstruction immediately
  • to remove urine from the bladder if a person cannot control the bladder because of nerve damage (this is known as neuropathic bladder)
  • when someone is confined to bed and too weak to go to the toilet normally

This site focuses on the views and experiences of people living in the community with a long-term indwelling catheter and those who may have used intermittent self catheterisation (ISC). All the people we spoke to had used an indwelling catheter for at least 3 months. Some had used a catheter for many years, others had one permanently (see ‘Reasons for needing a long-term indwelling catheter’). 

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Last reviewed October 2018.
Last update June 2015.


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