What Is Female Urinary Incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control.
In order to better understand female urinary incontinence, it's helpful to understand how the bladder works. Your urine is stored in your bladder. As the bladder fills up, it expands. Nerves along the bladder wall then signal to your brain that your bladder is full.
When you need to urinate, the muscles in the bladder wall tighten to force the urine out. At the same time, the sphincter muscle at the base of your bladder relaxes, allowing the urine to flow.
Most adults who feel the urge to urinate can hold it in until they get to the bathroom. People with urinary incontinence, however, can't voluntarily hold their urine in their bladder.
How Common Is Urinary Incontinence?
About 33 million people in the United States have some form of urinary incontinence or bladder condition. Urinary incontinence is more common in women than in men--in fact, it affects more than twice as many women than men.
The prevalence also increases with age, making it more common in older females; about 40% of women aged 65 and older have some form of urinary incontinence.
Types of Urinary Incontinence
The most common types of urinary incontinence in women are:
The most common type of incontinence, stress incontinence happens when an action puts pressure on the bladder, causing urine leakage. Coughing, sneezing, jogging or exercising, lifting something heavy, and even laughing can contribute to urine leaks.
Sometimes called "overactive bladder", urge incontinence occurs when you experience a sudden, strong urge to urinate, followed by urine leakage you can't control. You may feel the need to urinate often or when you don't expect it, including throughout the night, during sleep or after drinking water. This type of UI is more common in older women.
There is also functional incontinence. With this type of incontinence, a disability or obstacle keeps you from making it to the restroom in time. For example, you may have trouble walking and can't get to the restroom in time, or you have arthritis in your hands that makes it difficult to undress before you begin to urinate.
What Causes Urinary Incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is usually caused by problems with the muscles and nerves that help the bladder hold or pass urine. Urinary incontinence is not a disease; rather, it is a symptom of a wide range of health issues that can be both temporary or prolonged:
Temporary causes include urinary tract infections (UTI), certain medications, and constipitation. In cases like these, the incontinence lasts a short time.
Long-term incontinence can be the result of an underlying condition (such as neurological disorder) or a change or event the body goes through, such as pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, or a hysterectomy.
The temporary causes mentioned above can often apply to both men and women.
Although urinary incontinence in women can happen at any age, it’s more common in older women; in fact, more than 4 in 10 women aged 65 and older have female urinary incontinence. Researchers believe that the low levels of estrogen after menopause may weaken the urethra, which helps keep urine in the bladder until you are ready to urinate.
In men, incontinence is often related to prostate problems or treatments.
Treatment Options for
Discussing Urinary Incontinence With Your Doctor
Because the treatment or management for urinary incontinence will vary with each individual, it’s important to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
It’s not uncommon to be hesitant or even embarrassed to talk about bladder problems in women with a doctor. A little preparation can help your appointment be productive, and these tips can help you to discuss your incontinence with your doctor:
You can begin your discussions about female incontinence with your primary care doctor or OBGYN. Your provider may also refer you to a specialist if they decide you need a different treatment or additional diagnosis. These specialists are usually urologists, who specialize in urinary issues in men and women, or a urogynecologist, who specializes in the female urinary system.
Incontinence At Home
There are things you can do to manage your urinary incontinence at home as well. Some people with urinary incontinence find the following tips helpful for managing urine leakage in women:
- Kegel/pelvic floor exercises. These exercises may help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles.
- Lose weight, if needed. If you're overweight, losing weight can help reduce the pressure that excess weight puts on your bladder and surrounding muscles.
- Quit smoking. Smoking can exacerbate urinary incontinence.
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages are diuretics, which stimulate the bladder and increase urine volume.
Urinary Incontinence and Sleep
Urinary incontinence can also affect your sleep. Not only does waking throughout the night to use the bathroom disrupt your sleep schedule, urine leakage or bedwetting can result in disrupted sleep as well.
If you urinary incontinence is affecting your ability to get a good night’s sleep, a trip to the doctor may be in order. In the meantime, these tips may help you avoid accidents at night:
- Limit fluid intake before bedtime. This is especially true for alcohol and caffeinated beverages, as mentioned above.
- Try to double-void before bed. Urinate twice before you go to bed—once when you begin your nighttime routine and once again right before you lie down for the night
- Consider products to help manage leaks. There are also products that may help manage urine leakage and reduce bedwetting incidents. These include pads, liners, or a nighttime urine collection system like the PureWick™ System.
Finding Support for Urinary Incontinence
The most important thing to remember is that you don't have to manage your urinary incontinence alone. Working with your healthcare provider, learning more about urinary incontinence, and finding the right products can help you manage your condition.