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What is a Surgical Catheter?

By Sarah A. Kleven
Updated May 17, 2024
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A surgical catheter in its most simple sense is a latex, silicon or polytetrafluoroethylene tube inserted into vessels, passageways or body cavities to allow different types of fluid to drain from the body or to help inject different types of fluids into the body. There are many types of surgical catheters. These surgical catheters vary in their size, how they are used and how they function. Two of the most common uses for a surgical catheter are to drain urine from the bladder and to diagnose and treat narrowing of the heart arteries.

A Foley catheter is used to drain urine from the bladder. It is a type of indwelling catheter, meaning that it is inserted inside the body. This type of surgical catheter can be left inside the bladder for a long time, if needed.

The Foley catheter bears on its end a small balloon that fills with sterile water to help hold the surgical catheter in place in the bladder. The balloon is deflated to remove the catheter. Urine is drained from the bladder through the Foley catheter into a drainage bag outside of the body.

Other types of bladder catheter are condom catheters and intermittent or short-term catheters. Condom catheters are worn outside of the body. A cover, like a condom, is worn over a man's penis. A tube leading from the cover carries urine to a drainage bag. An intermittent catheter is a temporary catheter inserted into a man or woman's urethra to help drain the bladder.

Surgical catheters also are used in patients who have heart conditions. Catheters are used in angioplasty procedures to determine whether heart arteries have been narrowed and whether a patient's heart valves are working properly. In this procedure, a sheath is inserted into a patient's arm or leg. A catheter is passed through the sheath up to the heart arteries. Material then is injected through the catheter and watched as it moves through the heart's chambers, valves and vessels.

If it is determined that heart arteries are narrowed, several types of catheters can be used to open up the heart arteries again. Some surgical catheters are used to compress fat deposits against artery walls by inflating a balloon at the end of a catheter, much like the design of a Foley catheter. Other types of surgical catheters bear special blades at the end that shave or grind fat deposits off artery walls, widening the passages to the heart.

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