Urinary incontinence is an inability to hold your urine until you get to a restroom. More than 13 million people in the United States experience incontinence. It is often temporary, and results from an underlying medical condition.
Women experience incontinence twice as often as men. Pregnancy and childbirth, menopause, and the structure of the female urinary tract account for this difference. But both women and men can become incontinent from neurologic injury, birth defects, strokes, multiple sclerosis, and physical problems associated with aging.
It is more likely for older women to experience incontinence, which usually occurs because of problems with muscles that help to hold or release urine. The body stores urine-water and wastes removed by the kidneys-in the bladder, a balloon-like organ. The bladder connects to the urethra, the tube through which urine leaves the body.
During urination, muscles in the wall of the bladder contract, forcing urine out of the bladder and into the urethra. At the same time, sphincter muscles surrounding the urethra relax, letting urine pass out of the body. Incontinence will occur if your bladder muscles suddenly contract or muscles surrounding the urethra suddenly relax.
If coughing, laughing, sneezing, or other movements that put pressure on the bladder cause you to leak urine, you may have stress incontinence. Physical changes resulting from pregnancy, childbirth and menopause often cause stress incontinence. It is the most common form of incontinence in women and is treatable.
Pelvic floor muscles support your bladder. If these muscles weaken, your bladder can move downward, pushing slightly out of the bottom of the pelvis toward the vagina. This prevents muscles that ordinarily force the urethra shut from squeezing as tightly as they should. As a result, urine can leak into the urethra during moments of physical stress.
Stress incontinence also occurs if the muscles that do the squeezing weaken. Stress incontinence can worsen during the week before your menstrual period. At that time, lowered estrogen levels might lead to lower muscular pressure around the urethra, increasing chances of leakage. The incidence of stress incontinence increases following menopause.
If you lose urine for no apparent reason while suddenly feeling the need or urge to urinate, you may have urge incontinence. The most common cause of urge incontinence is inappropriate bladder contractions.
Medical professionals describe such a bladder as "unstable," "spastic," or "overactive." Your doctor might call your condition "reflex incontinence" if it results from overactive nerves controlling the bladder.
Urge incontinence can mean that your bladder empties during sleep, after drinking a small amount of water, or when you touch water or hear it running (as when washing dishes or hearing someone else taking a shower).
Involuntary actions of bladder muscles can occur because of damage to the nerves of the bladder, to the nervous system (spinal cord and brain), or to the muscles themselves. Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, and injury all can harm bladder nerves or muscles.
People with functional incontinence may have problems thinking, moving, or communicating that prevent them from reaching a toilet. A person with Alzheimer's disease, for example, may not think well enough to plan a timely trip to a restroom. A person in a wheelchair may be blocked from getting to a toilet in time. Conditions such as these are often associated with age and account for some of the incontinence of elderly women in nursing homes.
If your bladder is always full so that it frequently leaks urine, you have overflow incontinence. Weak bladder muscles or a blocked urethra can cause this type of incontinence. Nerve damage from diabetes or other diseases can lead to weak bladder muscles; tumors and urinary stones can block the urethra. Overflow incontinence is rare in women.
Other Types of Incontinence
Stress and urge incontinence often occur together in women. Combinations of incontinence-and this combination in particular-are sometimes referred to as "mixed incontinence."
"Transient incontinence" is a temporary version of incontinence. It can be triggered by medications, urinary tract infections, mental impairment, restricted mobility, and severe constipation, which can push against the urinary tract and obstruct outflow.
Cystocele (dropped bladder) occurs when the wall between a woman's bladder and her vagina weakens and allows the bladder to droop into the vagina. This condition may cause discomfort and problems with emptying the bladder.
A bladder that has dropped from its normal position may cause two kinds of problems-unwanted urine leakage and incomplete emptying of the bladder. In some women, a fallen bladder stretches the opening into the urethra, causing urine leakage when the woman coughs, sneezes, laughs, or moves in any way that puts pressure on the bladder.
A cystocele may result from muscle straining while giving birth. Other kinds of straining-such as heavy lifting or repeated straining during bowel movements-may also cause the bladder to fall. The hormone estrogen helps keep the muscles around the vagina strong. When women go through menopause, their bodies stop making estrogen, so the muscles around the vagina and bladder may grow weak.
How is incontinence evaluated?
The first step toward relief is to see a doctor who is well acquainted with incontinence to learn what type you have. A urologist specializes in the urinary tract, and some urologists further specialize in the female urinary tract.
To diagnose the problem, your doctor will first ask about symptoms and medical history. Your pattern of voiding and urine leakage may suggest the type of incontinence. Other obvious factors that can help define the problem include straining and discomfort, use of drugs, recent surgery and illness. If your medical history does not define the problem, it will at least suggest which tests are needed.
Your doctor will physically examine you for signs of medical conditions causing incontinence, such as tumors that block the urinary tract, stool impaction, and poor reflexes or sensations, which may be evidence of a nerve-related cause. Your doctor will measure your bladder capacity and residual urine for evidence of poorly functioning bladder muscles. Your doctor may also recommend:
Your doctor may ask you to keep a diary for a day or more to record when you use the restroom. This diary should note the times you urinate and the amounts of urine you produce. To measure your urine, you can use a special pan that fits over the toilet rim.
Kegel exercises to strengthen or retrain pelvic floor muscles and sphincter muscles can reduce or cure stress leakage. Women of all ages can learn and practice these exercises, which are taught by a health care professional.
Brief doses of electrical stimulation can strengthen muscles in the lower pelvis in a way similar to exercising the muscles. Electrodes are temporarily placed in the vagina or rectum to stimulate nearby muscles. This will stabilize overactive muscles and stimulate contraction of urethral muscles. Electrical stimulation can be used to reduce both stress incontinence and urge incontinence.
Biofeedback uses measuring devices to help you become aware of your body's functioning. By using electronic devices or diaries to track when your bladder and urethral muscles contract, you can gain control over these muscles. Biofeedback can be used with pelvic muscle exercises and electrical stimulation to relieve stress and urge incontinence.
Timed voiding (urinating) and bladder training are techniques that use biofeedback. In timed voiding, you fill in a chart of voiding and leaking. From the patterns that appear in your chart, you can plan to empty your bladder before you would otherwise leak. Biofeedback and muscle conditioning-known as bladder training-can alter the bladder's schedule for storing and emptying urine. These techniques are effective for urge and overflow incontinence.
Medications can reduce many types of leakage. Some drugs inhibit contractions of an overactive bladder. Others relax muscles, leading to more complete bladder emptying during urination. Some drugs tighten muscles at the bladder neck and urethra, preventing leakage. And some, especially hormones such as estrogen, are believed to cause muscles involved in urination to function normally. Some of these medications can produce harmful side effects if used for long periods. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of long-term use of medications.
A pessary is a stiff ring that is inserted into the vagina, where it presses against the wall of the vagina and the nearby urethra. The pressure helps reposition the urethra, leading to less stress leakage. If you use a pessary, you should watch for possible vaginal and urinary tract infections and see your doctor regularly.
Implants are substances injected into tissues around the urethra. The implant adds bulk and helps to close the urethra to reduce stress incontinence. Collagen and fat from the patient's body have been used. Implants can be injected by a doctor in about half an hour using local anesthesia. Implants have a partial success rate. Injections must be repeated after a time because the body slowly eliminates the substances. Before you receive collagen, a doctor must perform a skin test to determine whether you would have an allergic reaction to the material.
Doctors usually suggest surgery to alleviate incontinence only after other treatments have been tried. Many surgical options have high rates of success. Most stress incontinence results from the bladder dropping down toward the vagina. Therefore, common surgery for stress incontinence involves pulling the bladder up to a more normal position. Working through an incision in the vagina or abdomen, the surgeon raises the bladder and secures it with a string attached to muscle, ligament or bone.
For severe cases of stress incontinence, the surgeon may secure the bladder with a wide sling. This not only holds up the bladder but also compresses the bottom of the bladder and the top of the urethra, further preventing leakage.
In rare cases, a surgeon implants an artificial sphincter, a doughnut-shaped sac that circles the urethra. A fluid fills and expands the sac, which squeezes the urethra closed. By pressing a valve implanted under the skin, you can cause the artificial sphincter to deflate. This removes pressure from the urethra, allowing urine from the bladder to pass.