Intermittent Self-catheterisation

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Intermittent self-catheterisation is a safe and effective way of managing patients with urinary retention or incontinence due to a neuropathic or hypotonic bladder. It has transformed the lives of people rendered housebound by bladder problems and has preserved the kidneys of children with spina bifida, and of adults with spinal cord injury.

  • Neurological lower urinary tract dysfunction - there is usually chronic urinary retention from a neuropathic bladder condition: for example, multiple sclerosis, diabetic neuropathy, spina bifida, spinal cord injury or spinal tumour.[1][2][3] 
  • Detrusor hyperactivity and functional obstruction: many have sphincter dysfunction and are at risk for pyelonephritis and upper urinary tract injury.
  • Detrusor underactivity - maybe associated with urge incontinence, for example, some patients with diabetes and with bladder neuropathy may have instability requiring bladder-relaxing drugs but also have intermittent weak detrusor function with poor emptying.[1][4] The addition of bladder-relaxing drugs may worsen the baseline poor detrusor function, resulting in retention and overflow incontinence. In some cases, the solution may be to combine bladder-relaxing medical therapy with intermittent self-catheterisation.
  • Intermittent low-friction self-catheterisation is effective in preventing recurrences of urethral strictures.[5]

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  • Patients should be referred to a urologist for full assessment and to initiate the patient in using self-catheterisation.[1] 
  • Physical examination should include testing for pinprick sensation in the saddle area.
  • Sensory loss in the second to fourth sacral dermatomes implies diminished awareness of a full bladder.
  • Sensory loss that extends to the third lumbar dermatome suggests that catheterisation will be painless.[6]


  • Urinalysis.
  • Blood U&Es, creatinine and glucose.
  • Ultrasound of the urinary tract.
  • Plain X-ray to show urinary calculi and spinal abnormalities.
  • In children, urodynamic assessment should include a cystogram to detect vesicoureteric reflux.
  • Severe disability is not a contra-indication since patients in wheelchairs have mastered the technique despite paraplegia, an anaesthetic perineum, spinal deformity, intention tremor, mental handicap, old age or severe sight impairment.
  • Patients, and/or carer, must be highly motivated.
  • Adequate and effective education and support.
  • Catheterisation can be performed by the patient or carer, but must be gentle, especially if lacking sensation, and must be used more than four times a day.
  • They should always keep their catheter with them and not wait for urge before using.
  • The procedure should be performed 4-6 times a day, less frequent increases the risk of urinary tract infections and bladder volumes should not exceed 400 ml.[2] 

Patient choice and ease of use are major considerations in the decision-making process regarding which catheter to prescribe, as are lifestyle and the underlying bladder problem. Silicon catheters are preferred over latex ones as they are associated with less infection risk and also avoid potential allergies.[2] Providing patients with a range of suitable intermittent catheters will allow them to make informed choices and reduce wastage.[7] 

  • Nélaton's catheters: come in a range of sizes and lengths.
  • Single use catheters: are sterile and have either a hydrophilic coating, which requires immersion in water for 30 seconds to activate, or a gel coating, which does not require any preparation prior to use.
  • Reusable catheters: are made out of polyvinyl chloride and are non-coated. They can be washed and reused for up to a week.
  • Catheter kits: combine an intermittent catheter with a urine containment pouch. This system is useful for travelling or when access to a toilet would be difficult.
  • Scott catheter: female length, more rigid catheter for women who find a Nélaton's catheter difficult to handle.
  • Metal catheters: female length, stainless steel catheters that can be sterilised. Some girls and women find the rigid catheter easier to handle.

These are infrequent, particularly in female patients.[3][8] 

Further reading & references

  1. Urinary incontinence: The management of urinary incontinence in women; NICE Clinical Guideline (September 2013)
  2. Guidelines on Neurogenic Lower Urinary Tract Dysfunction; European Association of Urology (2011)
  3. RCN guidance for nurses: Catheter Care; Royal College of Nursing, 2012
  4. Burakgazi AZ, Alsowaity B, Burakgazi ZA, et al; Bladder dysfunction in peripheral neuropathies. Muscle Nerve. 2012 Jan;45(1):2-8. doi: 10.1002/mus.22178.
  5. Harriss DR, Beckingham IJ, Lemberger RJ, et al; Long-term results of intermittent low-friction self-catheterization in patients with recurrent urethral strictures. Br J Urol. 1994 Dec;74(6):790-2.
  6. Hunt GM, Oakeshott P, Whitaker RH; Intermittent catheterisation: simple, safe, and effective but underused. BMJ. 1996 Jan 13;312(7023):103-7.
  7. Bermingham SL, Hodgkinson S, Wright S, et al; Intermittent self catheterisation with hydrophilic, gel reservoir, and non-coated catheters: a systematic review and cost effectiveness analysis. BMJ. 2013 Jan 8;346:e8639. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e8639.
  8. Bolinger R, Engberg S; Barriers, complications, adherence, and self-reported quality of life for people using clean intermittent catheterization. J Wound Ostomy Continence Nurs. 2013 Jan-Feb;40(1):83-9. doi: 10.1097/WON.0b013e3182750117.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
2330 (v23)
Last Checked:
Next Review:

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