What is urinary incontinence in women?

Urinary incontinence in women, also referred to as female incontinence, is the inability to control the passage of urine. Often, embarrassment and the stigma associated with incontinence prevent the person from seeking treatment, even when incontinence threatens her quality of life and that of her family.

Urinary incontinence can be cured or significantly improved once the underlying cause has been detected. However, it's important to recognize that incontinence is a symptom and not a disease. Its cause may be quite complex and involve many factors. Your doctor should complete an in-depth evaluation before beginning treatment.

Women experience incontinence twice as often as men. Pregnancy and childbirth, menopause, and the structure of the female urinary tract account for this difference. Older women, more often than younger women, experience incontinence. But incontinence is not inevitable with age. Incontinence is treatable and often curable at all ages.

What types of urinary incontinence exist?

Two of the most common types of urinary incontinence are urge incontinence and stress incontinence.

Urge incontinence is an urgent desire to void, which is followed by an involuntary loss of urine. This condition can be caused by an "overactive" bladder and is commonly referred as OAB. Normally, strong muscles (sphincters) control the flow of urine from the bladder. The muscles of an "overactive" bladder spasm (contracts) with enough force to override the sphincter muscles of the urethra and allow urine to pass out of the bladder.

Stress incontinence occurs when an activity, such as a cough or sneeze, increases abdominal pressure on the bladder. Typically, a small amount of urine leaks from the urethra. This problem can result from a number of factors, including weak muscles of the pelvic floor, a weak sphincter muscle at the neck of the bladder, or a problem with the way the sphincter muscle opens and closes. Women who have given birth are more likely to have stress incontinence.

How common is urinary incontinence in women?

It is estimated that 10% of American women under the age of 65 have urinary incontinence compared to 35% of those older than 65. This is compared to 1.5% of men under 65 and perhaps 22% of those older than 65. The rates are much higher in women in care facilities and nursing homes. Between 30% to 50% of these individuals may have some form of incontinence.

What are the symptoms of female incontinence?

Chronic incontinence is categorized according to the circumstances under which urine is lost. Stress incontinence is the loss of urine during contractions of the abdomen caused by sneezing, laughing, coughing, exercising and other such actions.

Overactive Bladder is a condition in which the urge to urinate is sudden and extreme, and urine is often expelled before a bathroom is reached. This occurs even when there is a minimal amount of urine in the bladder.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/11/2014.

References

  • Warren JW. Dysuria, Bladder Pain, and the Interstitial Cystitis/Bladder Pain Syndrome. In: Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2014. Accessed 1/16/2015.
  • Lue TF, Tanagho EA. Chapter 28. Neuropathic Bladder Disorders. In: McAninch JW, Lue TF. eds. Smith and Tanagho's General Urology, 18e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013. Accessed 1/16/2015.
  • Pathak AS, Aboseif SR. Overactive Bladder: Drug Therapy Versus Nerve Stimulation. Nat Clin Pract Urol 2005; 2:310-311. Rosenberg MT. Dmochowski RR. Overactive bladder: Evaluation and management in primary care. CCJM 2005;72:150-156. National Association for Continence. Overactive Bladder Accessed 1/16/2015.

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