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What is Urinary Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is leaking of urine that you can't control. Many American men and women suffer from urinary incontinence. We don't know for sure exactly how many. That's because many people do not tell anyone about their symptoms. They may be embarrassed, or they may think nothing can be done. So they suffer in silence.

Urinary incontinence is not just a medical problem. It can affect emotional, psychological and social life. Many people who have urinary incontinence are afraid to do normal daily activities. They don't want to be too far from a toilet. Urinary incontinence can keep people from enjoying life.

Many people think urinary incontinence is just part of getting older. But it's not. And it can be managed or treated. Learn more here. Talk to your doctor. Find out what treatment is best for you.

Key Statistics

A quarter to a third of men and women in the U.S. suffer from urinary incontinence. That means millions of Americans. About 33 million have overactive bladder (also known as OAB representing symptoms of urgency, frequency and with or without urge incontinence.

Studies show that many things increase risk. For example, aging is linked to urinary incontinence. Pregnancy, delivery, and number of children increase the risk in women. Women who have had a baby have higher rates of urinary incontinence. The risk increases with the number of children. This is true for cesarean section (c-section) and vaginal delivery.

Women who develop urinary incontinence while pregnant are more likely to have it afterward. Women after menopause (whose periods have stopped) may develop urinary incontinence. This may be due to the drop in estrogen (the female sex hormone). Taking estrogen, however, has not been shown to help urinary incontinence.

Men who have prostate problems are also at increased risk. Some medications are linked to urinary incontinence and some medicines make it worse. Statistics show that poor overall health also increases risk. Diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and smoking are also linked.

Obesity increases the risk of urinary incontinence. Losing weight can improve bladder function and lessen urinary incontinence symptoms.

What happens normally?

Female Urinary Tract
Female Urinary Tract
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

Male Urinary Tract
Male Urinary Tract
Medical Illustration Copyright © 2015 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved

The brain and the bladder control urinary function. The bladder stores urine until you are ready to empty it. The muscles in the lower part of the pelvis hold the bladder in place. Normally, the smooth muscle of the bladder is relaxed. This holds the urine in the bladder. The neck (end) of the bladder is closed. The sphincter muscles are closed around the urethra. The urethra is the tube that carries urine out of the body. When the sphincter muscles keep the urethra closed, urine doesn't leak.

Once you are ready to urinate, the brain sends a signal to the bladder. Then the bladder muscles contract. This forces the urine out through the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the body. The sphincters open up when the bladder contracts.

What are the types of urinary incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is not a disease. It is a symptom of many conditions. Causes may differ for men and women. But it is not hereditary. And it is not just a normal part of aging. These are the four types of urinary incontinence:

Stress Urinary Incontinence (SUI)

With SUI, weak pelvic muscles let urine escape. It is one of the most common types of urinary incontinence. It is common in older women. It is less common in men.

SUI happens when the pelvic floor muscles have stretched. Physical activity puts pressure on the bladder. Then the bladder leaks. Leaking my happen with exercise, walking, bending, lifting, or even sneezing and coughing. It can be a few drops of urine to a tablespoon or more. SUI can be mild, moderate or severe.

Nerves carry signals from the brain to the bladder and sphincter
Nerves carry signals from the
brain to the bladder and sphincter
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health

There are no FDA approved medicines to treat SUI yet, but there are things you can do. Ways to manage SUI include "Kegel" exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor. Lifestyle changes, vaginal and urethral devices, pads, and even surgery are other ways to manage SUI.

To learn more about SUI risk factors, diagnosis and treatments visit our SUI article page.

Overactive Bladder (OAB)

OAB is another common type of urinary incontinence. It is also called "urgency" incontinence. OAB affects more than 30% of men and 40% of women in the U.S. It affects people's lives. They may restrict activities. They may fear they will suddenly have to urinate when they aren't near a bathroom. They may not even be able to get a good night's sleep. Some people have both SUI and OAB and this is known as mixed incontinence.

With OAB, your brain tells your bladder to empty - even when it isn't full. Or the bladder muscles are too active. They contract (squeeze) to pass urine before your bladder is full. This causes the urge (need) to urinate.

The main symptom of OAB is the sudden urge to urinate. You can't control or ignore this "gotta go" feeling. Another symptom is having to urinate many times during the day and night.

OAB is more likely in men with prostrate problems and in women after menopause. It is caused by many things. Even diet can affect OAB. There are a number of treatments. They include life style changes, drugs that relax the bladder muscle, or surgery. Some people have both SUI and OAB.

To learn more about OAB risk factors, causes and treatments visit our OAB page.

Mixed Incontinence (SUI and OAB)

Some people leak urine with activity (SUI) and often feel the urge to urinate (OAB). This is mixed incontinence. The person has both SUI and OAB.

Overflow Incontinence

With overflow incontinence, the body makes more urine than the bladder can hold or the bladder is full and cannot empty thereby causing it to leak urine. In addition, there may be something blocking the flow or the bladder muscle may not contract (squeeze) as it should.

One symptom is frequent urinating of a small amount. Another symptom is a constant drip, called "dribbling."

This type of urinary incontinences is rare in women. It is more common in men who have prostate problems or have had prostate surgery.