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When you eat and drink, your body absorbs the liquid. The kidneys filter out waste products from the body fluids and make urine. Urine travels down tubes called ureters into a muscular sac called the urinary bladder, which stores the urine.

When you are ready to go to the bathroom, your brain tells your system to relax. Urine travels out of your bladder through a tube called the urethra. You release urine by relaxing the urethral sphincter and contracting the bladder muscles. The urethral sphincter is a group of muscles that tightens to hold urine in and loosens to let it out.

Many people lose urine when they don't want to. When this happens enough to be a problem, it is called urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence is very common. But some people are too embarrassed to get help. The good news is that millions of men and women are being successfully treated and cured.

Causes of Urinary Incontinence

Urinary incontinence is not a natural part of aging. It can happen at any age, and can be caused by many physical conditions. Many causes of incontinence are temporary and can be managed with simple treatment. Some causes of temporary incontinence are:


Urinary tract infection
Vaginal infection or irritation
Constipation
Effects of medicine

Incontinence can be caused by other conditions that are not temporary. Other causes of incontinence are:

Weakness of muscles that hold the bladder in place
Weakness of the bladder itself
Weakness of the urethral sphincter muscles
Overactive bladder muscles
Blocked urethra (can be from prostate enlargement)
Hormone imbalance in women
Neurological disorders
Immobility (not being able to move around)

In almost every case, these conditions can be treated. Your health care provider will help to find the exact cause of your incontinence.

Types of Incontinence

There are also many different types of incontinence. Some people have more than one type of incontinence. You should be able to identify the type of incontinence you have by comparing it to the list below.

Urge Incontinence

People with urge incontinence lose urine as soon as they feel a strong need to go to the bathroom. If you have urge incontinence you may leak urine:

When you can't get to the bathroom quickly enough
When you drink even a small amount of liquid, or when you hear or touch running water

You may also ...
Go to the bathroom very often; for example, every two hours during the day and night. You may even wet the bed.

Stress Incontinence

People with stress incontinence lose urine when they exercise or move in a certain way. If you have stress incontinence, you may leak urine:

When you sneeze, cough, or laugh
When you get up from a chair or get out of bed
When you walk or do other exercise

You may also go to the bathroom often during the day to avoid accidents.

Overflow Incontinence

People with overflow incontinence may feel that they never completely empty their bladder. If you have overflow incontinence, you may:
Often lose small amounts of urine during the day and night
Get up often during the night to go to the bathroom
Often feel as if you have to empty your bladder but can't
Pass only a small amount of urine but feel as if your bladder is still partly full
Spend a long time at the toilet, but produce only a weak, dribbling stream of urine

Some people with overflow incontinence do not have the feeling of fullness, but they lose urine day and night.


Finding the Cause of Urinary Incontinence

Once you tell your health care provider about the problem, finding the cause of your urinary incontinence is the next step. Your health care provider will talk with you about your medical history and urinary habits. You probably will have a physical examination and urine tests. You may have other tests, as well. These tests will help find the exact cause of your incontinence and the best treatment for you. The table at the end of this booklet lists some of the tests you may be asked to take.

Treating Urinary Incontinence

Once the type and cause of your urinary incontinence is known, treatment can begin. Urinary incontinence is treated in one or more of three ways: behavioral techniques, medication, and surgery.

Behavioral Techniques

Behavioral techniques teach you ways to control your own bladder and sphincter muscles. They are very simple and work well for certain types of urinary incontinence. Two types of behavioral techniques are commonly used--bladder training and pelvic muscle exercises. You may also be asked to change the amount of liquid that you drink. You may be asked to drink more or less water depending on your bladder problem.

Bladder training is used for urge incontinence, and may also be used for stress incontinence. Both men and women can benefit from bladder training. People learn different ways to control the urge to urinate. Distraction (thinking about other things) is just one example. A technique called prompted voiding-urinating on a schedule is also used. This technique has been quite successful in controlling incontinence in nursing home patients. Pelvic muscle exercises called Kegel exercises are used for stress incontinence. The Kegel exercises help to strengthen weak muscles around the bladder.

Medication

Some people need to take medicine to treat conditions that cause urinary incontinence. The most common types of medicine treat infection, replace hormones, stop abnormal bladder muscle contractions, or tighten sphincter muscles. You will be told if you need medication and how and when to take it.

Surgery

Surgery is sometimes needed to help treat the cause of incontinence. Surgery can be used to:
Return the bladder neck to its proper position in women with stress incontinence
Remove tissue that is causing a blockage
Replace or support severely weakened pelvic muscles
Enlarge a small bladder to hold more urine

There are many different surgical procedures that may be used to treat incontinence. The type of operation you may need depends on the type and cause of your incontinence. Your doctor will discuss the specific procedure you might need. Be sure to ask questions so that you fully understand the procedure.

Some other products can be used to help manage incontinence. These include pads and catheters. Catheters are used when a person cannot urinate. A catheter is a tube that is placed in the bladder to drain urine into a bag outside the body.

The catheter usually is left inside the bladder, but some catheters are not left in. They are put in and taken out of the bladder as needed to empty it every few hours. Condom catheters (mostly used in men) attach to the outside of the body and are not placed directly in the bladder. Specially designed pads are available to help men and women with incontinence. Catheters and pads are not the first and only treatment for incontinence. They should only be used to make other treatments more effective or when other treatments have failed.

What to Do Next

Your health care provider will tell you about the type of incontinence you have and will recommend a treatment. While you are being treated, be sure to:
Ask questions
Follow instructions
Take all of your medicine
Report side effects of your medicine, if any
Report any changes, good and bad, to your health care provider

And remember, incontinence is not a natural part of aging. In most cases, it can be successfully treated and reversed.