The History of the Catheter

When you think of medical supplies and devices, some of the first ones that pop to mind are likely the stethoscope or a needle. In reality, the most used medical supplies of all are urological supplies such as the catheter. Catheters have existed over 3500 years and are used to drain a person’s bladder when it is unable to empty itself. Urological supplies of this type are used in hospitals and clinics, in long-term care facilities and at home, amongst children, with the elderly, and for both men and women. The intermittent catheter can be used by those with impaired bladder function so that they can put the catheter in themselves, and the Foley catheter can be more or less permanent. Here’s how we got this very useful of urological supplies.

The Earliest Catheters

The word for this device comes from Greek and means “to send down.” The earliest record we have of anyone using urological supplies come from ancient Egypt, where reeds, straws, and tubes made from bronze were used as catheters. During the time of Hippocrates, we find references to lead tubes being used as catheters. Excavations of Pompeii have identified an s-shaped tube made from silver that seems to have been used as a type of catheter. The Chinese also record using hollow leaves from onions amongst their early urology supplies, although these didn’t work very well and eventually tubes made of wood or metal were used instead. The first semipermanent catheter seems to have been used in the 1500s and consisted of a silver tube covered in cloth that had been soaked in wax.

Problems with Early Catheters

The earliest catheters were rigid because they were designed to be inserted and removed repeatedly. Although catheters were among the urological supplies available for both sexes, urinary retention has always been less of a problem for women than for men, so most of the devices from ancient times were targeted for men’s needs. Two problems resulted from these rigid devices. First, they had to be made of a durable and yet flexible material, and there was a constant search on for how to develop urological supplies that could satisfy both these conditions. Second, the need to insert and remove the catheter regularly was inconvenient and could cause irritation for the patient.

Catheter Advances

In the early 1800s, a man by the name of Louis Auguste Mercier invented a catheter with an elbow bend. This worked well, but he realized it could be better and a few years later invented one with a double elbow bend. This made it much easier to insert. In the 1850s, another inventor developed a vulcanized rubber catheter with a solid tip and a single eye. This further improved matters, although neither the tape or stitch used to retain it worked all that well. A few years later, a new innovation produced the self-retaining catheter, which consisted of two channels. One drain the urine, and the other inflated a balloon to close the tip and keep the catheter in the patient’s bladder.

The Foley Catheter

Almost all modern indwelling catheters are based on the Foley catheter invented in 1929. Foley invented a rubber balloon attached with silk and waterproof cement close to the tip. A longitudinal groove was used to inflate the balloon with water. Originally, the Foley catheter was not invented to become part of urological supplies, but it soon became apparent that it was valuable in the management of incontinence and retention. Most developments in recent years have been towards catheters with coatings and materials that are less likely to become infected or to cause an allergic reaction.

Today’s Urological Supplies

Today’s catheters can be made of rubber, PVC, or silicone. They come in many sizes and can be indwelling catheters that stay in the bladder, external catheters which are placed outside the body, or intermittent catheters which are appropriate for those who only need one for a short time.

We’ve always needed a way to help those with urinary incontinence and retention, and urological supplies continue to develop as technology opens up new avenues and possibilities.

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