What is urinary incontinence?

When your bladder suddenly doesn’t work as it used to anymore, it can be quite confusing and often also a little scary. You might wonder, “Why me?”. But don’t worry, you’re not alone! Incontinence is a very common condition that affects millions of people of all ages.

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Even though it can affect everybody, it’s much more common among women. An estimated 30% of women between 30 and 60 will experience some form of urinary incontinence at some point in their lives. Among men, the number is much lower at only 5% of men between 30 and 60.


What is urinary incontinence?

Urinary incontinence means that you’re passing urine when you don’t want to and you can’t stop it, not even if you really try. This can happen due to many reasons but is generally a result of problems with the muscles and nerves that are necessary for your bladder to hold & release urine.


What are the types of urinary incontinence?

Stress incontinence
Stress incontinence is the most common type of urinary incontinence and especially common among women who have given birth vaginally or have gone through menopause. It means that you leak urine when pressure is put on your bladder, for example, when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise, or lift heavy objects.

Urge incontinence
Urge incontinence is the second most common type of urinary incontinence and means that you will feel a sudden urge to pee which can make you leak urine and you might not make it to the bathroom in time. It is also known as having an overactive bladder, or OAB for short. The sudden urge to pee can be brought on by many things like a sudden change in position, sex, and even by the sound of running water. It is also not uncommon to experience a mix of stress and urge incontinence.

Overflow incontinence
If you’re unable to empty your bladder and it becomes too full, you might leak urine. This is called overflow incontinence. Symptoms include a frequent or, in some cases, constant dribble of urine and is usually caused by a blockage in the urinary tract or a damage to the bladder that doesn’t allow for it to empty fully. It is most commonly found in men with prostate gland problems but can also affect women.

Functional incontinence
This means that your bladder is working fine but that you suffer from a medical condition, physical or mental, that prevents you from getting to the toilet in time. Common causes for functional incontinence are confusion, dementia, poor eyesight or mobility, dexterity issues, depression, or anxiety and is most commonly found among the elderly.

Total incontinence
Total incontinence means that your bladder can’t store any urine at all and you’re constantly leaking small amounts of urine. This can be caused by a congenital problem, an injury to the spinal cord or urinary tract, or a fistula between your bladder and, for example, your vagina.


What causes urinary incontinence?

Urinary tract infection
A urinary tract infection, or UTI for short, irritates your bladder and often causes a strong urge to urinate that can, in severe cases, make you leak urine.

Carrying a baby means a lot of strain for the muscles, ligaments, and nerves in your pelvis which can lead to incontinence. But it’s not just the physical side that can cause incontinence, sometimes the hormonal changes that come with pregnancy are to blame.

Delivering a baby vaginally can damage or weaken the muscles necessary for proper bladder control which can lead to incontinence. You might also suffer from a pelvic floor prolapse after childbirth. This means that your bladder, uterus, small intestine, or rectum can get pushed down into your vagina which can lead to incontinence.

Stress and urge incontinence are fairly common among women during menopause. When your oestrogen levels that keep the lining of the bladder & urethra healthy drop, you might start suffering from signs of incontinence.

Prostate problems
Men who suffer from prostate problems are at a higher risk of developing incontinence. This can be due to an enlarged prostate, untreated prostate cancer, or can be a side effect of treatment for prostate cancer.

Being overweight
Any excess weight can quickly increase the pressure on your bladder which, in turn, can cause you to leak urine involuntarily.

Medical conditions
Conditions like diabetes, MS, or Parkinson’s that damage muscles or nerves can lead to urinary incontinence. It can also be caused by injuries to the spinal cord or urinary tract.

Some medications like sedatives, sleeping pills, diuretics, and some antidepressants can cause incontinence or make existing symptoms worse. If you think your incontinence is caused by a medication you’ve just started, have a chat with your GP about alternative treatment options.

Food & drink
Certain foods and drinks can cause temporary incontinence or make any existing symptoms worse. These include alcohol, chocolate, chili peppers, carbonated drinks & sparkling water, artificial sweeteners as well as foods that are high in spice, sugar, or acid.

If you are severely constipated and there’s a lot of hard stool in your rectum it can cause you to leak urine as the stool can put pressure on your bladder.

As you get older, your bladder muscles age too which can decrease your bladder’s capacity to store urine.

As we’ve already mentioned, if there’s a blockage in your urinary tract it can lead to overflow incontinence. The obstruction can be caused by a tumour in your urinary tract, urinary stones, or an enlarged prostate if you’re a man.


When should you you seek help?

If you experience any symptoms of urinary incontinence, it’s always important that you have a conversation with your GP. You might feel uncomfortable bringing up the topic, but there’s really no need for you to be embarrassed, your GP has likely seen a lot of incontinence cases throughout their career. Without speaking to a healthcare professional, however, it can be very difficult to find the cause for your urinary incontinence and without treatment your symptoms might even get worse and can start to severely impact your day-to-day life.


How is urinary incontinence treated?

After the root cause for your incontinence is found, your GP will develop a treatment plan with you to address your symptoms. This treatment plan can include the following:

Over the counter and prescription medication can be used to manage your incontinence symptoms. If you suffer from bladder spasms, for example, your GP will likely prescribe some form of medication to prevent them.

In severe cases, where other treatments didn’t have the wanted effect, your GP might suggest surgery. A common surgical treatment is the sling procedure where a small mesh ribbon gets inserted to support the bladder.

Certain devices can be used to lessen symptoms of your incontinence. For example, you can get a pessary inserted into your vagina to reposition your urethra and prevent leaks from happening.

Bladder retaining
You can train your bladder in order to improve your symptoms. For example, you can start doing timed bathroom trips where you go to the loo at set times during the day rather than waiting for the urge to pee. This is called bladder retaining. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our handy guide here.

Pelvic floor exercises
Training your pelvic floor muscles is a great way of reducing your symptoms of urinary incontinence. To train your pelvic floor, you simply have to squeeze your pelvic floor muscles. Not sure how? We’ve got an easy to follow step-by-step guide for you right here.

Lose weight
If you’re overweight, losing a few extra pounds can immediately improve your incontinence symptoms. Losing just 5% of your body weight can already make the difference! To put this in perspective: 5% are only 10 pounds for a person weighing 200 pounds. Sounds achievable, right?


Can you prevent urinary incontinence?

It’s not always possible to fully prevent urinary incontinence but there are certain steps you can take that can reduce the chance of it happening. These steps include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Do you Kegel exercises
  • Avoid bladder irritants like coffee, alcohol, or acidic foods as much as possible
  • Eat a fibre-rich diet to prevent constipation
  • Try and quit smoking if you’re a smoker