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Incontinence FAQs

What is incontinence?

  • Incontinence is a common condition that means the involuntary loss of urine.
  • This condition can occur for a number of reasons but is most commonly associated with the loss of urine when coughing, sneezing, or exercising or by the inability to hold urine when the urge to urinate occurs.
  • Both men and women are affected by incontinence, most typically as they get older.
  • Several types and causes of incontinence exist, and many can be treated to either eliminate or significantly reduce the problem.

Who is affected by incontinence?

Incontinence is sometimes called a silent epidemic because people struggling with the condition often do not talk about it to others or their physicians. Researchers estimate that 13 million or more people in the United States alone are affected by incontinence.

  • One out of 10 people age 65 or older are estimated to experience bladder control problems.
  • A significant percentage of elderly people living in their own homes have some type of incontinence.
  • Almost half of nursing home residents have incontinence.
  • More women than men are affected by incontinence.

When untreated, people with incontinence may limit their activities outside of the home for fear of embarrassment. Subsequently, the condition can contribute to loneliness and depression caused by social isolation. When treated, symptoms of incontinence can be reduced or eliminated altogether:

  • Most people with stress incontinence either improve significantly or are cured.
  • Less than half of people with urge incontinence are cured.

Are there different kinds of incontinence?

Several different types of incontinence have been identified. Stress and urge incontinence are the most common types.

  • Stress incontinence: Also known as exertional incontinence, stress incontinence typically is associated with activities such as laughing, coughing, and sneezing can cause urine to leak unexpectedly. This is most common in women and is often caused by physical changes occurring with and after pregnancy.
  • Urge incontinence: The bladder feels like it needs to be relieved immediately, regardless of how much urine is in the bladder. Symptoms include needing to urinate immediately (urgency), needing to urinate often (frequency), and having to get up at night to urinate (nocturia). When one cannot get to the bathroom in time and leaks, this is urge incontinence. Most people now refer to this condition as overactive bladder (OAB). Occurring in men and women, this condition is believed to be caused by bladder muscles contracting (bladder spasms) at the wrong times. This may be due to a disruption of signals between the bladder and the brain.
  • Mixed incontinence: When one person has both stress and urge incontinence, the condition is called mixed incontinence.
  • Overflow incontinence: Characterized by the retention of urine in the bladder after urinating, overflow incontinence is most common in men. Symptoms include dribbling of urine, urgency, hesitancy (waiting for the urine stream to begin), weak urine stream, straining to urinate, and urinating small amounts of urine at a time.
  • Dribbling incontinence: Dribbling urine immediately after urination is completed is called dribbling incontinence. This can occur in men and women.
  • Functional incontinence: When people are physically unable to make it to the bathroom in time due to a physical or mental condition, they are said to have functional incontinence.
  • Congenital incontinence: A child born with the bladder or ureter(s) out of place is said to have congenital incontinence.
  • Neuropathic incontinence: Problems affecting one or more nerves related to the bladder can cause different symptoms of incontinence. Abnormalities in the brain such as a stroke or a neurological disease can affect bladder function.
  • Traumatic incontinence: An injury to the pelvis, such as a fracture, or a complication of surgery can cause traumatic incontinence.
Last Reviewed 11/17/2017
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Urinary Incontinence: Keeping a Daily Record

In order to diagnose the root cause of and determine the proper treatment for urinary incontinence, doctors often ask patients to keep a "voiding log," that is, a record of all fluids consumed as well as all urine released, both voluntary and involuntary.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Incontinence, Urinary: Nonsurgical Therapies »

Urinary incontinence is defined by the International Continence Society as the involuntary loss of urine that represents a hygienic or social problem to the individual.

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