Urinary catheters are a common treatment used to manage symptoms of incontinence in people for whom mediation, behavioral treatment, surgery or other options are not appropriate or effective. These devices assist in passing urine from the bladder out of the body. They are long, thin, flexible tubes inserted through the urethra, and can be kept in place for short or long periods of time depending on the patient’s needs.

There are two main types of catheters:

Intermittent Catheters

  • Intermittent catheters are used for people who have problems passing urine due to spinal cord injuries or people with symptoms of urinary retention. They help to solve the problem of incomplete bladder emptying, and allow you to avoid post-void residual volume complications, such as bladder infections, kidney damage and incontinence.

Foley Catheters

  • Indwelling catheters, also known as foley catheters, are the type of catheter more commonly used for urinary incontinence. It helps to manage incontinence symptoms caused by urethral blockage or urinary retention that cannot be treated with surgical or medical options. These devices are also commonly used in hospitals for severely ill patients who have trouble moving to use the bathroom. A doctor or nurse is usually required to insert the catheter. Once the catheter is inserted, it is held in place inside the bladder by a balloon-like device filled with water, meaning that you do not have to worry about it falling out during your normal daily activities.

Potential problems with catheters

While catheters provide an excellent means of managing urinary incontinence for many patients, there are also a variety of issues that people considering catheters should be aware of. Common side effects or problems related to indwelling catheters include:

  • Burning feeling. When you urinate through the catheter, you may feel a burning or spasm-like feeling, which could cause urine to leak out of the catheter. This is normal, but if the sensation persists, talk to your doctor about medications to relieve these feelings.
  • Catheters falling out. You may accidentally pull the catheter out by mistake, or it could fall out because of too much tension.
  • Catheter leakage.  Most people experience some degree of leakage of urine around the catheter, caused by involuntary spasms of muscles around the bladder. There is no cause to be alarmed by a small leak.
  • Catheter obstruction. Occasionally, collections of bacteria, protein or mucus plugs could cause blockages in the catheter. For this reason, frequent catheter changes may be necessary.
  • Infection. Using catheters for a long period of time could encourage bacteria to form and cause infection.

Additionally, catheters generally must be changed every four to five weeks, meaning regular doctor visits are necessary. Talk to your doctor to determine if catheters are the right approach to manage your urinary incontinence symptoms.