Millions of women experience involuntary loss of urine called urinary incontinence (UI). Some women may lose a few drops of urine while running, coughing or sneezing. 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. But 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. But 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.
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.
Figure 1. Side view of female pelvic muscles.
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 (as 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-all can harm bladder nerves or muscles.
How is incontinence evaluated?
The first step toward relief is to see a doctor who has experience treating incontinence to learn what type you have.
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 you have. Thus, many specialists begin with having you fill out a bladder diary over several days. These diaries can reveal obvious factors that can help define the problem-including straining and discomfort, fluid intake, use of drugs, recent surgery, and illness. Often you can begin treatment at the first medical visit.
Your doctor will physically examine you for signs of medical conditions causing incontinence, including treatable blockages from bowel or pelvic growths. In addition, weakness of the pelvic floor leading to incontinence may cause a condition called prolapse, where the vagina or bladder begins to protrude out of your body. This condition is also important to diagnose at the time of an evaluation.
- Urinalysis and urine culture-Laboratory technicians test your urine for evidence of infection, urinary stones, or other contributing causes.
- Ultrasound-This test uses sound waves to create an image of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra.
- Cystoscopy-The doctor inserts a thin tube with a tiny camera in the urethra to see inside the urethra and bladder.
- Urodynamics-Various techniques measure pressure in the bladder and the flow of urine.
How is incontinence treated?
Behavioral Remedies: Bladder Retraining and Kegel Exercises
By looking at your bladder diary, the doctor may see a pattern and suggest making it a point to use the bathroom at regular timed intervals, a habit called timed voiding. As you gain control, you can extend the time between scheduled trips to the bathroom. Behavioral treatment also includes Kegel exercises to strengthen the muscles that help hold in urine.
How do you do Kegel exercises?
Read more on Kegel exercises at WebMD.