Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Managing The Catheter After Prostatectomy Part I: Expectations And Warning Signs

Men undergoing prostatectomy for prostate cancer face a recovery period that is somewhat different from other surgeries.  Unlike other surgeries, a radical prostatectomy requires a patient to wear a urinary catheter for 1-2 weeks after surgery.  This catheter is a narrow rubber hose that transports urine from the bladder, through the penis, and out to a bag outside of the body.  As you can imagine, this catheter takes some getting used to.  While most men do adjust well, others can have problems dealing with the catheter as well as complications associated with the device.  In this post, I will explain why a catheter is necessary after prostatectomy, what to expect when the catheter is in place, and common problems to look out for during this period.

Why is a Catheter Necessary?

In a previous post, I described the anatomy of the prostate and its relation to the bladder and urethra.  I think the best way to picture that layout is to imagine the bladder as an upside down fishbowl that pours urine through a donut (the prostate), and into a straw (the urethra within the penis).  During a prostatectomy, the prostate is removed and the bladder is directly connected to the urethra via stitches.  A catheter is passed through this connection (called the anastomosis) to allow it to heal without being disturbed by urine.  Generally, an anastomosis needs to keep dry to allow proper healing.  Otherwise, urine will leak through the anastomosis, creating a contracture (narrowing composed of scar tissue) which can impede the normal flow of urine out of the bladder. 

The amount of time the catheter spends in place depends on the type of prostatectomy performed.  For men undergoing open or traditional prostatectomy, the catheter time is usually 10-14 days.  In contrast, those men undergoing robotic prostatectomy usually only have to wear a catheter for 5-7 days.  This disparity has to do with the different ways the anastomosis is created in the two surgeries.  Robotic surgery tends to create an anastomosis that is usually more water tight and, so, heals a bit quicker.  As a result, the catheter does not need to stay in as long.

Common Complaints about the Catheter

1.      I feel like I am sitting on a ball:  One of the most frequent complaints I hear from men immediately after surgery is that they feel that they are sitting on a ball.  The reason for this feeling is often the part of the catheter located in the bladder.  The catheter is kept in place via an inflatable balloon which sits in the bladder.  After the catheter is placed, the balloon is inflated which prevents the catheter from sliding out the urethra.  This balloon is then deflated just prior to removal of the catheter.  Men often complain about feeling like they are sitting on a ball because they are actually sitting on one: the balloon of the catheter.  Fortunately, most men get adjusted to this feeling over time.

2.      I need to urinate:  Most men waking up from a prostatectomy will feel an overwhelming desire to urinate.  Even when they are told that they have a catheter in place draining their urine, they still feel like they have to urinate but cannot.  This uncomfortable feeling is also caused by the balloon in the bladder.  The bladder is used to nothing but urine within it at any time.  As a result, the presence of a foreign body in the bladder (the catheter/balloon) is highly irritating to the bladder.  To try to rid itself of the irritant, the bladder contracts.  Because the catheter is in place, this bladder contraction (called a bladder spasm) just pushes the urine located within the bladder out into the bag.  Because the balloon remains in place however, the bladder continues to try to expel it through repeated spasms.  In most men, this very bothersome desire to urinate goes away within a day or so.  For some men, however, the feeling persists.  Fortunately, there are pills available that can be given in the hospital and at home which relax the bladder, relieving the bladder spasms and the overwhelming desire to urinate.

3.      I have pain at the tip of my penis: This sensation is also caused by the bladder spasms described above.  Nerves travelling from the bladder to the tip of the penis are stimulated by the spasms and create pain impulses travelling down the shaft of the penis and to the tip.  Of course, the very presence of the catheter in the penis also leads to some discomfort.  Medicine for bladder spasms often decreases this pain in the penis as well.

4.      I have blood in the urine:  A small amount of blood in the urine can be normal.  After all, surgery can lead to bleeding and a prostatectomy is certainly no exception.  As a result, the urine can be light pink for a day or two after surgery.  In addition, a small amount of blood in the urine may be noticed after walking with the catheter in place.  This bleeding is caused by the balloon from the catheter rubbing on the bladder.  Nothing really needs to be done for this amount of blood in the urine.

In contrast, pure blood or clots coming out of the catheter and into the bag is a serious problem that requires immediate attention.  This is a sign of serious bleeding, usually outside of the bladder, that creeps in through gaps in the anastomosis.  Such bleeding can cause disruption of the anastomosis and actually break the bladder free from the urethra. In severe cases, such bleeding may require a return trip to the operating room to stop the bleeding and repair the anastomosis.  Often times, however, it only requires washing out the blood from the bladder by irrigating the bladder through the catheter with saline or sterile water.  In any case, significant blood in the urine is a red flag which deserves immediate attention from a physician.

5.      My catheter is not draining: This, too, can be a serious problem. While in place, a catheter is a life line for a man after prostatectomy.  It is the only conduit allowing urine to leave the body.  As a result, if the catheter malfunctions, there is no way for the urine to exit the bladder.  Sometimes, men identify a catheter malfunction when they notice that the bag into which the urine drains is empty for a prolonged period of time.  In other cases, however, a malfunctioning catheter can cause significant pain as trapped urine accumulates in the bladder and stretches it.

A malfunctioning catheter that does not drain urine is truly an emergency.  Allowing the bladder to distend too far can lead to a disruption of the anastomosis or even rupture of the bladder.  As a result, I always tell my patients that if the catheter does not work, they need to seek medical attention right away.  Because catheter malfunctions follow Murphy’s Law, they usually occur in the middle of the night, when the urologist’s office is closed.  As a result, a malfunctioning catheter often leads to a visit to the emergency room.  This is where it gets tricky.  As I mentioned before, the catheter is a life line after prostatectomy.  As such, it has to be treated with caution.  Removing the catheter prematurely or attempting to replace the catheter with another can create significant damage that may require a return to the operating room.  Such damage can cause a lifetime of incontinence.  That is why management of a malfunctioning catheter after a prostatectomy should ONLY be undertaken by an urologist.  An emergency room nurse or physician should NOT try to fix it, even if they have the best intentions.  I tell my patients to NEVER allow anyone other than an urologist to manipulate the catheter after a prostatectomy.  The stakes are just too high.

6.      I am draining urine around the catheter: Once in a while, after a prostatectomy, a patient calls me to tell me that urine is draining out of his penis around the catheter.  This problem is caused by one of two problems.  In some men, bladder spasms can be so severe that urine is expelled both through and around the catheter.  In other men, a malfunctioning catheter can distend the bladder to the point that trapped urine escapes around rather than through the catheter.  These two scenarios can often be distinguished by whether or not some urine is draining through the catheter and into the bag.  Bladder spasms will usually cause urine to drain both through and around the catheter.  A malfunctioning catheter, in contrast, will not allow drainage into the bag so urine will only be seen leaking out of the penis.  Regardless, drainage of urine around the penis should be expeditiously addressed by an urologist.

Take Home Message

The urinary catheter can make recovering from a prostatectomy a difficult endeavor.  For those men who never had to wear a catheter previously, the experience can be quite scary and foreign.  However, understanding what to expect can prevent a great deal of unnecessary anxiety.  Similarly, knowing what red flags to look for can prevent significant discomfort and complications.  In my next post, I will cover the next step in the catheter saga: what to expect when the catheter is removed.

This blog is not a medical practice and cannot provide specific medical advice. This information should never be used to replace or discount the medical advice you receive from your physician


  1. I have heard that a few urologists routinely use a suprapubic catheter, rather than a urethral catheter. I wonder why this has not become more popular. It seems like it could be considerably less annoying.

  2. chamorgadol: I would not recommend using a suprapubic catheter in lieu of a urethral catheter after prostatectomy because, as I mentioned in the post, the urethral catheter serves to splint open the anastamosis and prevent contracture. Suprapubic catheters are sometimes used after HIFU, however.

  3. Using catheters are helpful after surgeries. I believe they are necessary whenever you are going through something and your not able to control your urine.

  4. In nursing school I learned a lot about different cancers and I've learned that prostate cancer is one of those cancers that when you get surgery you would have to use catheters.

  5. In my 14th day after robotic surgery I have blood tinged urine in my Foley bag that I didn't have before. How do I know if this is not normal?