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Urinary Incontinence: Overview

Millions of women experience involuntary loss of urine called 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. 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.  

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.1  


Urine Leakage: A Common Health Problem for Women of All Ages

You may think bladder control problems are something that happens when you get older. The truth is that women of all ages have urine leakage. Men leak urine too, but the problem is more common in women.  

  • Many women leak urine when they exercise, laugh hard, cough, or sneeze.  
  • Often women leak urine when they are pregnant or after they have given birth.  
  • Women who have stopped having their periods—menopause—often report bladder control problems.  
  • Female athletes of all ages sometimes have urine leakage during strenuous sports activities.  

  • Urine leakage may be a small bother or a large problem. About half of adult women say they have had urine leakage at one time or another. Many women say it's a daily problem.  

    Urine leakage is more common in older women, but that doesn't mean it's a natural part of aging. You don't have to "just live with it." You can do something about it and regain your bladder control.  

    Incontinence is not a disease. But it may be a sign that something is wrong. It's a medical problem, and a doctor or nurse can help.  


    How does the bladder work?

    The bladder is a balloon-shaped organ that stores and releases urine. It sits in the pelvis. The bladder is supported and held in place by pelvic muscles. The bladder itself is a muscle.  

    The tube that carries urine from your body is called the urethra. Ring-like muscles called sphincters help keep the urethra closed so urine doesn't leak from the bladder before you're ready to release it.  

    Several body systems must work together to control the bladder.  

  • Pelvic floor muscles hold the bladder in place.  
  • Sphincter muscles keep the urethra closed.  
  • The bladder muscle relaxes when it fills with urine and squeezes when it's time to urinate.  
  • Nerves carry signals from the bladder to let the brain know when the bladder is full.  
  • Nerves also carry signals from the brain to tell the bladder when it's time to urinate.  
  • Hormones help keep the lining of the bladder and urethra healthy.  

  • Bladder control problems can start when any one of these features is not working properly.  


    What are the different types of bladder control problems?

    Not all bladder control problems are alike. Some problems are caused by weak muscles, while others are caused by damaged nerves. Sometimes the cause may be a medicine that dulls the nerves.  

    To help solve your problem, your doctor or nurse will try to identify the type of incontinence you have. It may be one or more of six types.2  

  • Stress  
  • Urge  
  • Overactive Bladder  
  • Functional  
  • Overflow  
  • Mixed  
  • Transient 

    Incontinence Products

    Because urinary incontinence can affect any woman, and there are numerous causes and types of incontinence, there are many products that offer support. For women who deal with urinary incontinence on a daily basis with heavy leaks, adult briefs and diapers and incontinence underwear are recommended. Different brands offer different features and leakage coverage. Some brands such as Always® or Depends® offer discreet diapers that look and feel like normal underwear. Underpads or commonly known as chuck (chux) pads, are also recommended if large amounts of urine are leaked, especially at night. Underpads can go on a chair or on a bed and offer added protection against leaks. For women who have sporadic leaks such as when you cough, laugh, sneeze or move too quickly, pads and liners are recommended. Again, different brands offer different types of protection and features. Women who have recently given birth may deal with temporary incontinence in which maternity pads are recommended. For more information on incontinence supplies and what factors to consider, please visit Simply Medical’s Incontinence Buying Guide.  



    1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

    2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

    This content is provided for informational purposes only. has not verified the accuracy of the information contained in this article, which is presented on an “as is” basis.  It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, examination, diagnosis or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before starting any new treatment or vigorous physical activity or making any changes to existing treatment or activities. Do not delay seeking or otherwise disregard medical advice based on the content presented here.   The product information contained in this document, including the product images and additional product materials, was collected from various supplier sources. All product claims and specifications are those of the product suppliers and have not been independently verified by Simply Medical. Simply Medical is not responsible for errors or omissions in the product information.   All trademarks and registered trademarks are the property of their respective owners. © 2016 All Rights Reserved.