What is it?
Urinary incontinence — the loss of bladder control — is a common and often embarrassing problem. The severity of urinary incontinence ranges from occasionally leaking urine when you cough or sneeze to having an urge to urinate that's so sudden and strong you don't get to a toilet in time.
If urinary incontinence affects your day-to-day activities, don't hesitate to see your doctor. In most cases, simple lifestyle changes or medical treatment can ease your discomfort or stop urinary incontinence.
Urinary incontinence is the inability to control the release of urine from your bladder. Some people experience occasional, minor leaks — or dribbles — of urine. Others wet their clothes frequently.
Types of urinary incontinence include:
- Stress incontinence. This is loss of urine when you exert pressure — stress — on your bladder by coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising or lifting something heavy. Stress incontinence occurs when the sphincter muscle of the bladder is weakened. In women, physical changes resulting from pregnancy, childbirth and menopause can cause stress incontinence. In men, removal of the prostate gland can lead to this type of incontinence.
- Urge incontinence. This is a sudden, intense urge to urinate, followed by an involuntary loss of urine. Your bladder muscle contracts and may give you a warning of only a few seconds to a minute to reach a toilet. With urge incontinence, you may need to urinate often, including throughout the night. Urge incontinence may be caused by urinary tract infections, bladder irritants, bowel problems, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, injury or nervous system damage associated with multiple sclerosis. If there's no known cause, urge incontinence is also called overactive bladder.
- Overflow incontinence. If you frequently or constantly dribble urine, you may have overflow incontinence, which is an inability to empty your bladder. Sometimes you may feel as if you never completely empty your bladder. When you try to urinate, you may produce only a weak stream of urine. This type of incontinence may occur in people with a damaged bladder, blocked urethra or nerve damage from diabetes and in men with prostate gland problems.
- Mixed incontinence. If you experience symptoms of more than one type of urinary incontinence, such as stress incontinence and urge incontinence, you have mixed incontinence.
- Functional incontinence. Many older adults, especially people in nursing homes, experience incontinence simply because a physical or mental impairment keeps them from making it to the toilet in time. For example, a person with severe arthritis may not be able to unbutton his or her pants quickly enough. This is called functional incontinence.
- Gross total incontinence. This term is sometimes used to describe continuous leaking of urine, day and night, or the periodic uncontrollable leaking of large volumes of urine. In such cases, the bladder has no storage capacity. Some people have this type of incontinence because they were born with an anatomical defect. This type of incontinence can be caused by injuries to the spinal cord or urinary system or by an abnormal opening (fistula) between the bladder and an adjacent structure, such as the vagina.
Urinary incontinence isn't a disease, it's a symptom. It can be caused by everyday habits, underlying medical conditions or physical problems. A thorough evaluation by your doctor can help determine what's behind your incontinence.
Causes of temporary urinary incontinence
Certain foods, drinks and medications can cause temporary urinary incontinence. A simple change in habits can bring relief.
- Alcohol. Alcohol acts as a bladder stimulant and a diuretic, which can cause an urgent need to urinate.
- Overhydration. Taking in a lot of fluids, especially in a short period of time, increases the amount of urine your bladder has to deal with.
- Dehydration. If you don't consume enough liquid to stay hydrated, your urine can occasionally become very concentrated. This collection of concentrated salts can irritate your bladder and worsen incontinence.
- Caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic and a bladder stimulant that can cause a sudden need to urinate.
- Bladder irritation. Carbonated drinks, tea and coffee — with or without caffeine — artificial sweeteners, corn syrup, and foods and beverages that are high in spice, sugar and acid, such as citrus and tomatoes, can aggravate your bladder.
- Medications. Heart medications, blood pressure drugs, sedatives, muscle relaxants and other medications may contribute to bladder control problems.
Easily treatable medical conditions also may be responsible for urinary incontinence.
- Urinary tract infection. Infections can irritate your bladder, causing you to have strong urges to urinate. These urges may result in episodes of incontinence, which may be your only warning sign of a urinary tract infection. Other possible signs and symptoms include a burning sensation when you urinate and foul-smelling urine.
- Constipation. The rectum is located near the bladder and shares many of the same nerves. Hard, compacted stool in your rectum causes these nerves to be overactive and increase urinary frequency.
Causes of persistent urinary incontinence
Urinary incontinence can also be a persistent condition caused by underlying physical problems or changes, including:
- Pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnant women may experience stress incontinence because of hormonal changes and the increased weight of an enlarging uterus. In addition, the stress of a vaginal delivery can weaken muscles needed for bladder control. The changes that occur during childbirth can also damage bladder nerves and supportive tissue, leading to a dropped (prolapsed) pelvic floor. With prolapse, your bladder, uterus, rectum or small bowel can get pushed down from the usual position and protrude into your vagina. Such protrusions can be associated with incontinence. Incontinence related to childbirth may develop right after delivery or take years to develop.
- Changes with aging. Aging of the bladder muscle leads to a decrease in the bladder's capacity to store urine and an increase in overactive bladder symptoms. Risk of overactive bladder increases if you have blood vessel disease, so maintaining good overall health — including stopping smoking, treating high blood pressure and keeping your weight within a healthy range — can help curb symptoms of overactive bladder. After menopause women produce less estrogen, a hormone that helps keep the lining of the bladder and urethra healthy. With less estrogen, these tissues may deteriorate, which can aggravate incontinence.
- Hysterectomy. In women, the bladder and uterus lie close to one another and are supported by the same muscles and ligaments. Any surgery that involves a woman's reproductive system — for example, removal of the uterus (hysterectomy) — runs the risk of damaging the supporting pelvic floor muscles, which can lead to incontinence.
- Painful bladder syndrome (interstitial cystitis). This rare, chronic condition occasionally causes urinary incontinence, as well as painful and frequent urination.
- Prostatitis. Loss of bladder control isn't a typical sign of prostatitis, which is inflammation of the prostate gland — a walnut-sized organ located just below the male bladder. Even so, urinary incontinence sometimes occurs with this common condition.
- Enlarged prostate. In older men, incontinence often stems from enlargement of the prostate gland, a condition also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). The prostate begins to enlarge in many men after about age 40.
- Prostate cancer. In men, stress incontinence or urge incontinence can be associated with untreated prostate cancer. However, more often, incontinence is a side effect of treatments — surgery or radiation — for prostate cancer.
- Bladder cancer or bladder stones. Incontinence, urinary urgency and burning with urination can be signs and symptoms of bladder cancer or bladder stones. Other signs and symptoms include blood in the urine and pelvic pain.
- Neurological disorders. Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, stroke, a brain tumor or a spinal injury can interfere with nerve signals involved in bladder control, causing urinary incontinence.
- Obstruction. A tumor anywhere along your urinary tract can obstruct the normal flow of urine and cause incontinence, usually overflow incontinence. Urinary stones — hard, stone-like masses that can form in the bladder — may be to blame for urine leakage. Stones can be present in your kidneys, bladder or ureter.
These factors increase your risk of developing urinary incontinence:
- Sex. Women are more likely than men are to have stress incontinence. Pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and normal female anatomy account for this difference. However, men with prostate gland problems are at increased risk of urge and overflow incontinence.
- Age. As you get older, the muscles in your bladder and urethra lose some of their strength. Changes with age reduce how much your bladder can hold and increase the chances of involuntary urine release. However, getting older doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have incontinence. Incontinence isn't normal at any age — except during infancy.
- Being overweight. Being obese or overweight increases the pressure on your bladder and surrounding muscles, which weakens them and allows urine to leak out when you cough or sneeze.
- Smoking. A chronic cough associated with smoking can cause episodes of incontinence or aggravate incontinence that has other causes. Constant coughing puts stress on your urinary sphincter, leading to stress incontinence. Smokers are also at risk of developing overactive bladder.
- Other diseases. Kidney disease or diabetes may increase your risk for incontinence.
Complications of chronic urinary incontinence include:
- Skin problems. Urinary incontinence can lead to rashes, skin infections and sores (skin ulcers) from constantly wet skin.
- Urinary tract infections. Incontinence increases your risk of repeated urinary tract infections.
- Changes in your activities. Urinary incontinence may keep you from participating in normal activities. You may stop exercising, quit attending social gatherings or even stop venturing away from familiar areas where you know the locations of toilets.
- Changes in your work life. Urinary incontinence may negatively affect your work life. Your urge to urinate may keep you away from your desk or cause you to have to get up often during meetings. The problem may disrupt your concentration at work or keep you awake at night, causing fatigue.
- Changes in your personal life. Perhaps most distressing is the impact incontinence can have on your personal life. Your family may not understand your behavior or may grow frustrated at your many trips to the toilet. You may avoid sexual intimacy because of embarrassment caused by urine leakage. It's not uncommon to experience anxiety and depression along with incontinence.
The good news, however, is that incontinence isn't something you necessarily have to live with. Most cases of incontinence can be eliminated or controlled, especially when treatment begins early.
Common tests and processes for urinary incontinence include:
- Bladder diary. Your doctor may ask you to keep a bladder diary for several days. You record how much you drink, when you urinate, the amount of urine you produce, whether you had an urge to urinate and the number of incontinence episodes.
- Urinalysis. A sample of your urine is sent to a laboratory, where it's checked for signs of infection, traces of blood or other abnormalities.
- Blood test. Your doctor may have a sample of your blood drawn and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Your blood is checked for various chemicals and substances related to causes of incontinence.
If further information is needed, you may undergo additional testing, including:
- Postvoid residual (PVR) measurement. For the procedure, you're asked to urinate (void) into a container that measures urine output. Then your doctor checks the amount of leftover (residual) urine in your bladder using a catheter or ultrasound. A catheter is a thin, soft tube that's inserted into your urethra and bladder to drain any remaining urine. For an ultrasound, a wand-like device is placed over your abdomen. Using sound waves and a computer, the ultrasound creates an image of your bladder. A large amount of leftover urine in your bladder may mean that you have an obstruction in your urinary tract or a problem with your bladder nerves or muscles.
- Pelvic ultrasound. Ultrasound also may be used to view other parts of your urinary tract or genitals to check for abnormalities.
- Stress test. For this test, you're asked to cough vigorously or bear down as your doctor examines you and watches for loss of urine.
- Urodynamic testing. These tests measure pressure in your bladder when it's at rest and when it's filling. A doctor or nurse inserts a catheter into your urethra and bladder to fill your bladder with water. Meanwhile, a pressure monitor measures and records the pressure within your bladder. This test helps measure your bladder strength and urinary sphincter health.
- Cystogram. In this X-ray of your bladder, a catheter is inserted into your urethra and bladder. Through the catheter, your doctor injects a fluid containing a special dye. As you urinate and expel this fluid, images show up on a series of X-rays. These images help reveal problems with your urinary tract.
- Cystoscopy. A thin tube with a tiny lens (cystoscope) is inserted into your urethra. This way, your doctor can check for — and potentially remove — abnormalities in your urinary tract.