Urinary incontinence happens when you lose control of your bladder. In some cases, you may empty your bladder’s contents completely. In other cases, you may experience only minor leakage. The condition may be temporary or chronic, depending on its cause.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, millions of adults in the United States experience urinary incontinence. It’s more common among women and people over 50 years of age. But anyone can be affected by this condition.
As you age the muscles that support your bladder tend to weaken. This can lead to urinary incontinence.
The condition can also be caused by many different health problems. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and can be a sign of an infection, kidney stones, enlarged prostate, or cancer.
If you experience urinary incontinence, make an appointment with your doctor. The condition can interfere with your daily life and lead to potentially embarrassing accidents. Your doctor can also determine if a more serious medical condition is the cause.
Types of urinary incontinence
Urinary incontinence is divided into three general types. You can potentially experience more than one type at the same time.
One in ten people over age 65 has a problem with bladder control. Among the more common problems are not being able to hold your urine until you get to the bathroom and urinating unexpectedly when sneezing, coughing, or laughing. In most cases, bladder control problems can be successfully treated.
Urge incontinence occurs when you lose control of your bladder after experiencing a sudden and strong urge to urinate. You may not be able to make it to the bathroom in time, once that urge hits.
Overflow incontinence can occur if you don’t completely empty your bladder when you urinate. Later, some of the remaining urine may leak from your bladder. This type of incontinence is sometimes called "dribbling."
Causes of urinary incontinence
There are many potential causes of urinary incontinence. Examples include:
- weakened bladder muscles, as a result of aging
- physical damage to your pelvic floor muscles
- enlarged prostate
Some of these conditions are easily treatable and only cause temporary urinary problems. Others are more serious and persistent.
As you get older, the muscles that support your bladder typically become weaker. This raises your risk of incontinence. To maintain strong muscles and a healthy bladder, it’s important to practice healthy lifestyle habits. The healthier you are, the better your chances of avoiding incontinence as you age.
Your pelvic floor muscles support your bladder. Damage to these muscles can cause incontinence. This damage can be caused by certain types of surgery, such as hysterectomy. It’s also a common result of pregnancy and childbirth.
If you’re male, the neck of your bladder is surrounded by your prostate gland. This gland releases fluid that protects and nourishes your sperm. It tends to enlarge with age. It’s common for men to experience some incontinence as a result.
Prostate or bladder cancer can cause incontinence. In some cases, treatments for cancer can also make it harder for you to control your bladder. Even benign tumors can cause incontinence by blocking your flow of urine.
Other potential causes of incontinence include:
- urinary tract infections
- kidney or bladder stones
- prostatitis, or inflammation of your prostate
- interstitial cystitis, a chronic condition that causes inflammation within your bladder
- side effects from certain medications, such as blood pressure drugs, muscle relaxants, sedatives, and some heart medications
Some lifestyle factors can also cause temporary bouts of incontinence. For example, drinking too much alcohol, caffeinated beverages, or other fluids can cause you to temporarily lose control of your bladder.
When to seek medical help
Any instance of incontinence is reason to seek medical help. It may be a symptom of a more serious condition that needs to be treated. Even if the underlying cause isn’t serious, incontinence can be a major disruption in your life. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis and discuss treatment options with your doctor.
In some cases, incontinence is a sign of a medical emergency. You should seek immediate medical attention if you lose control of your bladder and experience any of the following symptoms:
- trouble speaking or walking
- weakness or tingling in any part of your body
- loss of vision
- loss of consciousness
- loss of bowel control
What to expect at your doctor’s appointment
During your appointment, your doctor will likely ask you questions about your symptoms. They will probably want to know how long you’ve been incontinent, which types of incontinence you’ve experienced, and other details.
They may also ask about your daily habits, including your typical diet and any medications or supplements that you take. Depending on your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may order additional tests, including:
- Collecting a sample of urine for analysis. Laboratory staff can check it for signs of infection or other problems.
- Measuring the amount of urine that you release when urinating, the amount left over in your bladder, and the pressure in your bladder. This information is gathered by inserting a catheter, or a small tube, into your urethra and your bladder.
- Conducting a cystoscopy. In this test, they will insert a small camera into your bladder to examine it up close.
What your treatment will involve
Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the cause of your incontinence. An underlying medical condition may require recommend medication, surgery, or other treatments.
You may also be encouraged to conduct certain exercises, such as pelvic floor exercises or bladder training. These can help to increase your bladder control.
Sometimes, your doctor may not be able to cure your bladder incontinence. In these cases, there are steps you can take to manage your condition. For example, your doctor may advise you to:
- adjust your diet or fluid intake
- maintain a clear and well-lit path to the bathroom
- use absorbent undergarments or pads
- take scheduled bathroom breaks
Preventing urinary incontinence
You can’t prevent all cases of urinary incontinence, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing it. Living a healthy lifestyle is key. For example, try to:
- maintain a healthy weight
- get plenty of exercise
- eat a well-balanced diet
- limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption
- avoid smoking
Written by: Mary Ellen Ellis
Medically reviewed on Oct 18, 2016 by Judith Marcin, MD