What common drugs may exacerbate urinary retention in my patient with spinal cord injury?

Anticholinergics (including tricyclic antidepressants-TCAs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, opioids, alpha-adrenergics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are among the most common agents associated with urinary retention1.  This adverse reaction is particularly observed in patients with pre-existing hypoactive bladder, including those with spinal cord injury (SCI).  Unfortunately, patients with SCI also often require pharmacologic management of neuropathic pain with one or more of these agents (eg, TCAs, opioids, and NSAIDs).

The mechanism of urinary retention may vary depending on the agent. Anticholinergics (eg, TCAs, diphenhydramine) decrease detrusor muscle contraction via blockade of the parasympathetic pathway.1 Opiates may increase the sphincter tone of bladder via sympathetic stimulation, as well as decrease the sensation of bladder fullness by partial inhibition of the parasympathetic nerves that innervate the bladder.2 SSRIs increase external sphincter tone by inhibiting serotonin reuptake.3 Alpha-adrenergics (e.g. ephedrine) can lead to detrusor relaxation and sphincter contraction.3 NSAIDs are thought to inhibit prostaglandin-mediated detrusor contraction.5

Although most patients with SCI have urinary incontinence due to detrusor hyperactivity, some will have urinary retention due to detrusor hyporeflexia.6

Final Fun Fact: Did you know that medications may account for up to 10% of urinary retention episodes? 



  1. Verhamme KM, Sturkenboom MC, Stricker BH, Bosch R. Drug-induced urinary retention. Drug Saf 2008;31(5):373-88. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18422378
  2. Elsamra SE, Ellsworth P. Effects of analgesic and anesthetic medications on lower urinary tract function. Urologic Nursing 2012;32: 60-68. https://www.suna.org/download/education/2014/article320260067.pdf
  3. Thor KB. Serotonin and norepinephrine involvement in efferent pathways to the urethral rhabdosphincter: implications for treating stress urinary incontinence. Urology 2003; 62:3-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14550831
  4. Glidden RS, DiBona FJ. Urinary retention associated with ephedrine. J Pediatr 1977; 90:1013-4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/859049
  5. Verhamme KM, Dieleman JP, Van Wijk MA, et al. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and increased risk of acute urinary retention. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:1547–1551. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16009872
  6. Fowler CJ, O’Malley KJ. Investigation and management of neurogenic bladder dysfunction. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2003;74(Suppl IV):iv27–iv31. http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/jnnp/74/suppl_4/iv27.full.pdf


Contributed by Alice Choi, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.


What common drugs may exacerbate urinary retention in my patient with spinal cord injury?

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