What is intermittent catheterization?

A urinary catheter is a medical device used to empty the bladder when a patient is unable to do so naturally. Catheters usually have a drainage bag to capture the urine. For bedridden patients, the bag may drape over the side of the bed. For ambulatory patients, the bag is usually attached to the leg with elastic bands.

The bag can be emptied into the toilet as needed. Intermittent catheterization involves inserting and removing the catheter several times a day. This eliminates the need to wear a continuously draining catheter.

Although it may seem intimidating at first, intermittent catheterization is a fairly simple procedure, once you get the hang of it. Most people are able to catheterize themselves. Even children as young as 7 or 8 years old can learn to handle catheterization on their own. If you’re not physically able to do it by yourself, a parent or caregiver can help.

If you can’t empty your bladder on your own, intermittent catheterization is an effective solution to a continuously draining catheter. Leaving urine in your bladder for a long time can lead to a distended bladder or a urinary tract infection.

Intermittent catheterization may help keep those problems under control. It may also improve urinary incontinence in some people. Because you remove the catheter when your bladder is emptied, it frees you up for a more active lifestyle.

Indwelling, or long-term catheters, can have complications including:

  • infection
  • leaking
  • blockage
  • bladder spasms

The chance of developing these complications is reduced with intermittent catheterization. Once you learn how to catheterize yourself, it’s unlikely that you’ll hurt yourself in the process. When compared with using an indwelling catheter, you may experience an improved quality of life.

Your doctor might recommend intermittent catheterization if you have any of the following conditions:

  • urinary retention
  • incontinence
  • severe bladder problems that could result in kidney damage

Your doctor may also prescribe intermittent catheterization if you have spina bifida, spinal cord injury, or certain neurological conditions.

Intermittent catheterization may be used temporarily after certain types of surgery of the prostate, genitals, or after an abdominal hysterectomy.

A member of your healthcare team will insert the sterilized catheter, or tube, into your urethra, which connects your genitals to your bladder. Then, you gently guide the tube into your bladder. This will cause urine to flow through the tube and into the bag. When the flow stops, you may need to move the catheter a bit to see if there’s any more urine. Once you have emptied your bladder, you can remove the catheter.

Your healthcare team will explain how to use the catheter properly. You should report any difficulties or side effects to your doctor.

Depending on your reasons for using catheterization, you may need to measure and record the amount of urine collected. The drainage bag must be properly maintained. You’ll have to keep track of your supplies and make sure you have everything you need on hand.

It may take some time for men to learn how to insert the catheter beyond the sphincter muscles. Women may have a hard time finding the urethra. Rarely, a catheter may break through a weak part of the urethra and cause bleeding. This requires immediate medical attention.

Your doctor will advise how many times a day you should use a catheter. Catheters come in a variety of types and sizes. You may be able to buy them at a medical supply store or through mail order. Your doctor can write a prescription for a new, sterile catheter or a reusable catheter that must be sterilized between uses. You may need additional supplies, such as lubricants and sanitizers.

Be sure to speak with your doctor if you have any questions about using a catheter.