Why can't I pee

Urinary retention

Most people feel uncomfortable talking to friends, family, or the doctor about bladder weakness. If you are having trouble emptying your bladder, you are not alone.


Urinary retention is defined as the inability to empty all or part of the bladder.1 If you have urinary retention, you will either have difficulty starting to urinate or you will not be able to empty your bladder completely.


Symptoms of urinary retention include:

  • Difficulty starting urination,
  • Difficulty emptying the bladder completely,
  • dripping or poorly flowing urine,
  • frequent, small amounts of urine during the day,
  • Inability to sense a full bladder
  • increased pressure in the abdomen,
  • lack of urge to urinate,
  • Overexertion pushing urine out of the bladder,
  • frequent urination,
  • urinating at night (nocturia, getting up to urinate more than twice during the night).


There are usually two main reasons for urinary retention: obstructive and non-obstructive. In the case of obstructive urinary retention, something (e.g. kidney stones) is obstructing the free flow of urine through the urinary tract. Non-obstructive causes include weak bladder muscles and nerve problems that interfere with the transmission of signals between the brain and the bladder. When the nerves are not working properly, the brain may not receive a full bladder message.

The most common causes of non-obstructive urinary retention include:

  • Stroke,
  • vaginal birth,
  • Injury / trauma in the pelvic area,
  • impaired muscle or nerve function as a result of medication or anesthesia,
  • Accidents with brain or spinal cord injury.

Causes of obstructive urinary retention include:

  • Cancer,
  • Kidney or bladder stones
  • enlarged prostate (BPH) in men.


Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and how they are affecting your daily life. Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms.



National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reference collection

The information on this page is not a substitute for a personal consultation with your doctor. Always talk to your doctor about diagnosis and treatment.