What is urinary incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is when you lose control of your bladder. It can cause you to accidentally release a small amount of urine or to completely empty your bladder. There are several different types of it, and both men and women can develop urinary continence for a variety of reasons.
You may feel a bit embarrassed about it, but it’s pretty common, and a clinician can usually help you to address it. If you’re experiencing urinary incontinence for the first time, a clinician will need to evaluate you to make sure you don’t have an underlying condition.
Who gets urinary incontinence?
Women are about twice as likely to suffer from urinary incontinence as men. Your risk of developing it increases with age, and a family history of urinary incontinence also increases your risk.
Women are more likely to develop urinary incontinence during pregnancy. A growing fetus puts pressure on the bladder, making it harder for pregnant women to control it. Women who are postpartum also have higher rates of urinary incontinence because giving birth can damage or weaken the muscles involved in urinating.
Obesity can increase your risk of urinary incontinence too. The additional weight carried by obese people may stress their bladder, leading to a loss of control over the urinary sphincter. There are also other conditions that may cause it, including neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
How common is urinary incontinence?
In population-based research, the number of people who experience urinary incontinence ranges from just under 10% to 36%, and more than twice the amount of older women have it than older men. Despite the large number of people who experience urine leakage, it’s not often discussed because of embarrassment. It’s a sensitive subject, but many people would benefit from discussing it with a clinician. Once you’ve spoken to a clinician about it, they can explore treatment options with you to either reduce the number of times you experience urinary incontinence or help it to stop altogether.
What types of incontinence are there?
There are five different types of urinary incontinence: stress, urge, overflow, functional and mixed incontinence. The two most common types are stress urinary incontinence and urge urinary incontinence.
Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) happens when there’s pressure on your bladder from the muscles around it. This pressure is stronger than your bladder control muscles, so urine leaks through your urinary sphincter.
Urge urinary incontinence (UUI) happens when you get a sudden urge to urinate that you can’t control. Your bladder responds by releasing itself involuntarily. There are usually underlying conditions that cause this sort of incontinence, but they’re mostly minor.
Functional urinary incontinence happens when you experience a physical or mental issue that prevents you from reaching the bathroom before your bladder relieves itself. A physical condition that makes it hard for you to remove your clothes or a mental condition that stops you from responding to your urge to urinate appropriately indicates functional incontinence.
Overflow urinary incontinence is characterised by small amounts of urine that escape throughout the day. If you don’t fully empty your bladder when you go to the bathroom, it can lead to overflow incontinence.
Mixed urinary incontinence is when your urinary incontinence symptoms mirror more than one kind of urinary incontinence. You may experience a combination of stress urinary incontinence and urge urinary incontinence symptoms.
Stress incontinence is the result of pressure on your bladder from the muscles around it. Many pregnant women experience stress incontinence because of the weight of the growing fetus and from the kicks and jabs as it moves around in the uterus. Other people may leak urine when they have abdominal spasms that result from laughing, coughing, or sneezing.
Urge incontinence is different from stress incontinence. People who have this type of urinary incontinence get sudden, strong urges to urinate. The urge is so strong that they can’t make it to the bathroom before their bladder releases urine. Drinking caffeine or alcohol can cause urge incontinence, but there may also be an underlying condition that’s causing it.
People who show signs of more than one type of urinary incontinence are diagnosed with mixed incontinence. If you suffer from two or more types of urinary incontinence, talk to our clinician to figure out why you have mixed incontinence and how to treat it.
This page was medically reviewed by Dr Daniel Atkinson, GP Clinical Lead
on August 02, 2022. Next review due on August 01, 2024.