What Is the Difference between the Urethra and Ureter?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 10 June 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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The urethra and ureter are both parts of the urinary tract, draining urine from the bladder and kidneys, respectively. Both consist of tubes capable of contractions to push fluid to its end destination. They can be prone to similar problems, including cancers and stones, small crystals of minerals that may form in the kidneys or bladder. Patients who develop disorders in the urethra and ureter may see a urologist, a medical specialist who focuses on the urinary tract.

Two ureters run from the kidneys, crossing from the abdomen and into the pelvis to connect to the bladder. As the bladder fills, it eventually stimulates the urge to urinate, allowing a sphincter to release so the urine can be pushed down the urethra. In women, this structure is very short, while men have a longer tube to drain from the bladder and through the penis. Additionally, men use the urethra for semen as well as urine, while women have a separate genital tract.

Similar names for related anatomical structures can become confusing, although they also provide useful contextual information. The same prefix alerts people to the fact that the urethra and ureter are part of the same physical system. Some learners find it helpful to draw a map of the urinary tract and label the parts to reinforce the difference between these components. An awareness that there are two ureters and only one urethra can also be helpful for keeping these structures straight.

In both the urethra and the ureter, stones can be a medical issue. The stones can block the tube, especially in people with naturally narrow anatomical openings, causing a backup of urine. This leads to pain and inflammation. In the case of a urethra blockage, the bladder can actually rupture. Stones may be removed surgically, broken apart with sound waves, or passed with the assistance of medication, depending on size and location.

Another medical issue that can occur in the urethra and ureter is cancer. These structures rapidly shed cells, which can increase the risk of developing abnormal cell growth as new layers of tissue grow in. Cancers may be initially identified as blockages, until medical imaging provides more information about them. Surgery is typically necessary to remove the cancer and the patient may need chemotherapy and radiation to manage the condition. Reconstructive surgical procedures can replace segments of the urethra and ureter that may be removed in cancer treatment.

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