urinary tract diagram

Everything You Need To Know About The Urinary Tract

Urination is something we do every day, however, we hardly take the time to think about what it is and why it works. Just like every other bodily function, urination cannot work without the help of other organs and muscles in the body.

The kidneys, ureters and bladder all play an integral role in the urinary system. In this blog, we answer common questions about the urinary tract such as:

  • How does the urinary system work?
  • What health issues might occur if the urinary tract doesn’t function properly?
  • What tests can detect discrepancies in the urinary system?
  • How can someone maintain a healthy urinary tract?

By explaining why and how the urinary system works, we hope to encourage you to pay closer attention to your body and its many functions. Follow along with us below to learn just how important your urinary tract is.

How does the urinary system work?

Urine is processed by a joint effort from your kidneys, ureters, bladder, sphincter muscles and urethra. But before you understand the process, let’s first cover what urine is.

What is urine?

After you eat, your body takes the nutrients it needs and distributes the nutrients where they’re needed. What isn’t used is turned into waste, which is where the urinary system comes into play. Urea is waste that is extracted from the bloodstream by the urinary system.

As urea passes through the kidneys (which we will further explain later on), it aids in creating urine. Urine is a combination of urea, water and waste that is expelled by the body through the urinary tract.

So, urination is simply one of the body’s many ways of eliminating harmful waste and chemicals.

Now that you know what urine is, we can get back to talking about the function of the urinary system.

What role do the kidneys play in the urinary system?

The kidneys, which are bean-shaped organs located near the middle of your back, play an important role in the urinary tract. Once your body has absorbed the nutrients that it needs, the additional waste begins to pass through the bloodstream. As urea moves through the blood towards the kidneys, the kidneys filter the urea from the blood through tiny filtering units called nephrons.

Each nephron consists of blood capillaries and a small tube called the renal tubule. The nephrons then aid the formation of urea, water and waste to create urine, which then travels down the renal tube into the ureters.

The ureters are long, thin tubes that connect your kidneys and bladder. Muscles in the ureters constantly tighten and relax, pushing urine from the kidneys. Without this constant flow, urine may build up in the kidneys and cause an infection. This process occurs every 10 to 15 seconds all day long and is not one that you have any control over.

Once urine has passed through the ureters, it travels into the bladder.

What is the importance of the bladder in the urinary system?

The bladder is a balloon-shaped organ that sits on your pelvis. As urine enters the bladder, is it stored until the bladder is full. This is when the bladder sends a message to the brain that it needs to be emptied.

Interestingly enough, the bladder can hold up to two cups of urine for two to five hours before a trip to the bathroom is needed. However, this varies between person to person and is highly dependant on fluid intake, age, health conditions and more.

Without sphincter muscles, though, the bladder would be unable to hold urine at all. Sphincter muscles tighten around the opening of the bladder like a rubber band, preventing urine from leaking into the urethra (where urine exits the body).

When you are ready to urinate, the brain tells the sphincter muscles to relax and reminds the bladder muscles to tighten, allowing urine to flow and exit the body.

And that’s it! When these organs work together in perfect harmony, normal urination occurs. But what happens when these organs and muscles don’t function properly? Let’s find out.

What health issues might occur if the urinary tract doesn’t function properly?

Potential urinary tract health issues that may arise due to aging, injury or illness are:

  • Urinary incontinence due to weakened sphincter muscles
  • Kidney infections caused by weakened ureter muscles or a blockage in the kidney, such as a kidney stone
  • Bladder infections due to weakened bladder muscles or weakened uterine muscles
  • Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) which may impact urinary function in older men
  • Prostatitis that may cause frequent or painful urination for older men
  • Kidney failure due to the kidney’s inability to remove waste from the bloodstream
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI) caused by bacteria in the urinary tract
  • Urinary retention due to the inability to empty your bladder

Over time, the key organs and muscles involved in the urinary tract will weaken. When this happens, urine may leak or not empty completely causing issues for your bladder and kidneys.

In serious cases, such as internal bleeding, the urinary tract may also be impacted. Recently, in fact, two of our own urologists, Dr. Daniel Watson and Dr. John Kirkland, were able to repair damage to the urinary tract for a woman in labor. During her C-section, a patient experienced internal bleeding in her uterine arteries. In order to stop the bleeding, the ureters had to be cut. While this procedure (among others) saved her life, her bladder function was impacted for weeks until the ureter could be fully repaired.

While an injury this severe doesn’t happen to everyone, it’s further proof of the importance of the urinary tract and how one small part can affect the functionality of the whole system.

To read more about this patient’s story, take a moment to read

11 Doctors Team Up To Save Mother of 7 by Novant Health.

What tests can detect discrepancies in the urinary system?

A urinalysis is a test that examines the appearance, concentration and contents of your urine. This test is the most common way to check for urinary abnormalities or infection. Once a sample of urine is collected, your urologist can check for blood in the urine and cloudiness, as well as check other levels of key urine components such as acidity, proteins and sugar.

However, if you are experiencing issues with urine flow or muscle control, your urologist may conduct a urodynamic test. Urodynamic tests measure the contraction of the bladder through the insertion of a catheter. This test will also require the insertion of a small tube either in the rectum or vagina to measure the pressure of the bladder under strain. The results from this test will indicate to your urologist if there are muscle control issues present impacting the function of the urinary tract.

How can someone maintain a healthy urinary tract?

There are quite a few things you can do to positively impact your urinary tract, such as:

  • Drink more water—hydration is key to a healthy urinary tract
  • Kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor (and fight the effects of erectile dysfunction!)
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Urinate before and after sex

While aging is inevitable, and your muscles are bound to weaken over time, there are actions you can take to keep your organs healthy and your muscles strong. By implementing these small changes, you can work towards a healthier urinary tract now and in the future.

However, one of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy urinary tract is to schedule regular appointments with your urologist. A urologist will be able to answer any questions you may have about the health and functionality of your urinary system, as well as test for abnormalities or infections.

A Team You Can Count On: Urology Specialists Of The Carolinas

When you need a urologist you can rely on, trust the team at Urology Specialists of the Carolinas. For over 30 years, our specialized team of urologists have been strengthening, treating and improving urinary tract issues.

When you have questions or want to examine the health of your own urinary tract, don’t wait to reach out. We are ready to help when you need us!

In the meantime, take a moment to download our free Nutrition & Lifestyle Guide below. This guide will teach you tips and tricks for achieving and maintaining optimal urological health.

Access The Guide