Overactive bladder (OAB) is a chronic condition of the bladder that causes sudden urges to urinate. The urge comes from bladder muscle contractions. The urge can happen suddenly and at any time, regardless of the amount of urine in the bladder. It may cause urine leakage (incontinence).
The urinary system consists of:
- two kidneys
- two ureters (tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder)
- the bladder
- the urethra (the tube that carries the urine from the bladder and out of the body)
Many muscles are also involved in urination. This creates many areas for a potential problem. Bladder and kidney health, obstructions, and muscle problems can all lead to OAB.
OAB affects millions of people worldwide. According to the National Association for Continence (NAFC), one in five adults over the age of 40 are affected by OAB or recurrent symptoms of urgency and frequency. Eighty-five percent of these people are women. In addition, one in four women experience urine leakage at one time or another.
Although OAB is relatively common, many people don’t talk about it. The embarrassing nature of OAB means it’s something that people would rather keep quiet.
In many cases, the cause of OAB is unknown. The good news is that several treatment options are available even when the cause can’t be determined.
As stated above, OAB is characterized by the sudden and intense urge to urinate regardless of the amount of urine in the bladder. These urges may or may not cause urine to leak out of the bladder. When leakage occurs, it is called urinary incontinence (UI) and is defined as the involuntary loss of urine.
Urge incontinence is when sudden urges associated with OAB cause urine leakage. Sometimes urine leakage can occur as a result of sudden movement like laughing or sneezing. This puts pressure on the bladder. This type of leakage is called stress incontinence and occurs independently of OAB.
Urge and stress incontinence and OAB are sometimes discussed together. This is true especially when it comes to certain treatment options involving the strengthening of the pelvic floor muscle (detrusor). This is the part of the body responsible for suppressing urine leakage. However, while OAB and stress incontinence are two different conditions. urge incontinence is usually considered a symptom of OAB.
OAB is typically a treatable condition. People affected by it are often able to make lifestyle changes that remedy the symptoms. Treating the conditions that cause OAB can resolve the problem. Sometimes medication is necessary. Rarely, surgery is required.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Published on Oct 06, 2014
Medically reviewed on Oct 06, 2014 by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA