Article | October 2019

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Bladder Control—Incontinence

Loss of bladder control.

What is urinary incontinence?

  • Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control.
  • Urine is stored in a balloon-like organ—the bladder. Urine leaves the body through a tube called the urethra.
  • When bladder muscles tighten without warning, or the muscles at the base of the urethra relax without warning, you can have leakage.
  • The severity ranges from occasionally leaking urine when you cough or sneeze to having an urge to urinate that’s so sudden and strong you are not able to get to a toilet in time.

Incontinence is more common than many people think. In fact, over 50 percent of people aged 65 and over who live at home experience incontinence.1 It affects more women than men, and women may experience it more severely.

The 2 most common forms of incontinence are:

  • Urge incontinence: When the bladder muscles are too active, causing frequent urges to urinate—even when the bladder is not full
  • Stress incontinence: When the bladder muscles weaken, causing urine loss due to sneezing, laughing, or lifting

Causes

Many factors can cause incontinence, such as:

  • Growing older: Pelvic and sphincter muscles get weaker.
  • Nerve damage: This could be due to diabetes, trauma, and other conditions.
  • Weight gain: Weight increases pressure on the bladder.
  • Prostate problems: This is very common among older men.
  • Urinary infections: These can increase the tendency for incontinence.
  • Constipation: This also increases pressure on the bladder.
  • Medications: Some over-the-counter medications can cause incontinence.
  • Lifestyle: Caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids can cause incontinence.

Diagnosis and screenings

Your doctor understands the medical causes of incontinence. You may be asked to answer questions such as:

  • How often do you empty your bladder?
  • How many times do you wake up at night to empty your bladder?
  • What prescription or over-the-counter medication do you take?
  • How much caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids do you drink daily?
  • Do you have any pain or burning when you urinate?

Have you had abdominal, prostate, hysterectomy, or childbirth-related surgery?

Treatment

The good news is: help is available. Depending on your individual needs, your doctor may focus on:

  • Lifestyle changes to help improve bladder control
  • Exercises to strengthen the bladder with Kegel exercises
  • Treating existing conditions such as diabetes, constipation, and prostate problems
  • Referring you to a specialist, such as a urologist
  • Prescribing medication that helps improve bladder control

Talk to your doctor to find the treatment that is right for you. The sooner you call your doctor, the sooner you can start getting more from life.

More information

For more information, please visit the Mayo Clinic website.

Young doctor consulting with a senior woman on a sofa

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.CDC.gov/NCHS/Data/Series/SR_03/SR03_036.pdf, Accessed August 23, 2019.