What is urinary incontinence (UI)?
UI is also known as “loss of bladder control” or “urinary leakage.” UI is when urine leaks out before you can get to a bathroom. If you have UI, you are not alone. Millions of women have this problem, especially as they get older.
Some women may lose a few drops of urine when they cough or laugh. Others may feel a sudden urge to urinate and cannot control it. Urine loss can also occur during sexual activity and can cause great emotional distress.
What causes UI?
UI is usually caused by problems with muscles and nerves that help to hold or pass urine.
Urine is stored in the bladder. It leaves the body through a tube that is connected to the bladder called the urethra. Muscles in the wall of the bladder contract to force urine out through the urethra. At the same time, sphincter muscles around the urethra relax to let the urine pass out of the body.
Incontinence happens if the bladder muscles suddenly contract or the sphincter muscles are not strong enough to hold back urine.
UI is twice as common in women as in men. Pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause are major reasons why. But both women and men can become incontinent from brain injury, birth defects, stroke, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and physical changes associated with aging.
- Pregnancy — Unborn babies push down on the bladder, urethra (tube that you urinate from), and pelvic floor muscles. This pressure may weaken the pelvic floor support and lead to leaks or problems passing urine.
- Childbirth — Many women leak urine after giving birth. Labor and vaginal birth can weaken pelvic floor support and damage nerves that control the bladder. Most problems with bladder control during pregnancy and childbirth go away after the muscles have time to heal. Talk to your doctor if you still have bladder problems 6 weeks after childbirth.
- Menopause — Some women have bladder control problems after they stop having periods. After menopause, the body stops making the female hormone estrogen. Some experts think this loss of estrogen weakens the urethral tissue.
Other causes of UI that can affect women and men are:
- Constipation — Problems with bladder control can happen to people with long-term (chronic) constipation.
- Medicines — UI may be a side effect of medicines such as diuretics (“water pills” used to treat heart failure, liver cirrhosis, hypertension, and certain kidney diseases). Hormone replacement has been shown to cause worsening UI.
- Caffeine and alcohol — Drinks with caffeine, such as coffee or soda, cause the bladder to fill quickly and sometimes leak.
- Infection — Infections of the urinary tract and bladder may cause incontinence for a short time. Bladder control returns when the illness goes away.
- Nerve damage — Damaged nerves may send signals to the bladder at the wrong time, or not at all. Trauma or diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis can cause nerve damage. Nerves may also become damaged during childbirth.
- Excess weight — Being overweight is also known to put pressure on the bladder and make incontinence worse.
This article first appeared on WomensHealth.gov.