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Millions of women experience involuntary loss of urine due to urinary incontinence (UI). Some women may lose a few drops of urine while running or coughing. Others may feel a strong, sudden urge to urinate just before losing a large amount of urine. Many women experience both symptoms. UI can be slightly bothersome or totally debilitating. For some women, the risk of public embarrassment keeps them from enjoying many activities with their family and friends. Urine loss can also occur during sexual activity and cause tremendous emotional distress.
Women experience UI twice as often as men – pregnancy and childbirth, menopause and the structure of the female urinary tract account for this difference. However, both women and men can become incontinent from neurologic injury, birth defects, stroke, multiple sclerosis and physical problems associated with aging.
Older women experience UI more often than younger women. Incontinence is not inevitable with age – UI is a medical problem. Your doctor or nurse can help you find a solution. No single treatment works for everyone, but many women can find improvement without surgery.
Incontinence occurs because of problems with muscles and nerves 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 the sphincter muscles are not strong enough to hold back urine. Urine may escape with less pressure than usual if the muscles are damaged, causing a change in the position of the bladder. Obesity, which is associated with increased abdominal pressure, can worsen incontinence. Fortunately, weight loss can reduce its severity.
What are the types of incontinence?
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. This type of incontinence is common in women and, in many cases, can be treated.
Childbirth and other events can injure the scaffolding that helps support the bladder in women. Pelvic floor muscles, the vagina, and ligaments support your bladder (see figure 2). If these structures 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 squeezing muscles 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 after suddenly feeling the need or urge to urinate, you may have urge incontinence. A common cause of urge incontinence is inappropriate bladder contractions. Abnormal nerve signals might be the cause of these bladder spasms.
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 (when washing dishes or hearing someone else taking a shower). Certain fluids and medications such as diuretics or emotional states such as anxiety can worsen this condition. Some medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism and uncontrolled diabetes, can also lead to or worsen urge incontinence.
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 (including injury that occurs during surgery) can all harm bladder nerves or muscles.
Overactive bladder occurs when abnormal nerves send signals to the bladder at the wrong time, causing its muscles to squeeze without warning. Voiding up to seven times a day is normal for many women, but women with overactive bladder may find that they must urinate even more frequently.
Specifically, the symptoms of overactive bladder include:
- Urinary frequency – bothersome urination eight or more times a day or two or more times at night
- Urinary urgency – the sudden, strong need to urinate immediately
- Urge incontinence – leakage or gushing of urine that follows a sudden, strong urge
- Nocturia – awaking at night to urinate
People with medical problems that interfere with thinking, moving, or communicating may have trouble 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 have a hard time getting to a toilet in time. Functional incontinence is the result of these physical and medical conditions. Conditions such as arthritis often develop with age and account for some of the incontinence of elderly women in nursing homes.
Overflow incontinence happens when the bladder doesn’t empty properly, causing it to spill over. Your doctor can check for this problem. 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. Most women don’t have pure stress or urge incontinence, and many studies show that mixed incontinence is the most common type of urine loss in women.
Transient incontinence is a temporary version of incontinence. Medications, urinary tract infections, mental impairment, and restricted mobility can all trigger transient incontinence. Severe constipation can cause transient incontinence when the impacted stool pushes against the urinary tract and obstructs outflow. A cold can trigger incontinence, which resolves once the coughing spells cease.