Urinary Incontinence: More Common Than You Think

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Urinary incontinence is the involuntary and unintentional leaking of urine. Urinary incontinence can also be an embarrassing problem. As with many potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable symptoms, those affected may be hesitant to speak up or ask questions about their condition, even at the doctor's office. Urinary incontinence occurs more often in women than in men, and it is a lot more common than you might expect. In fact, chances are that you know other people who have been affected by urinary incontinence.

A 2010 summary of research studies presented at an international meeting of doctors who study incontinence illustrates just how common this condition can be.

  • In particular, studies showed that some degree of urinary incontinence was reported by 25%-45% of women.
  • While urinary incontinence becomes more common with age, 7%-37% of women aged 20-39 reported experiencing some degree of incontinence.
  • Having incontinence on a daily basis was noted by 9% to 39% of women over 60.
  • The prevalence of incontinence in men was reported to be approximately half that in women, with 11%-34% of older men reporting symptoms of incontinence.

What are different types of urinary incontinence?

There are many different types of incontinence, depending upon the reason for the problem.

  • Abnormalities in bladder function can cause so-called urge incontinence, thought to be related to abnormal contractions of the bladder muscle.
  • Damage to or weakening of the pelvic structures and muscles (which commonly occurs during or after pregnancy) can cause stress incontinence, in which urine leaks during coughing, laughing, or other movements that put stress on the bladder.
  • Other types of incontinence can develop if the bladder cannot empty properly or if the nerves that control the bladder are damaged.
  • It's also possible to have a mixture of more than one type of incontinence. For example, the combination of stress and urge incontinence is not unusual in women.

How to stop urinary incontinence

Incontinence must not be a source of embarrassment when you speak with your physician. The fact is that this common condition is treatable by a variety of approaches, and not speaking up about the problem means that you won't have access to effective treatments:

  • dietary changes,
  • medications,
  • vaginal supportive devices,
  • biofeedback,
  • nerve stimulation,
  • injections to thicken the pelvic tissues, and
  • surgery are all possible treatment options, depending upon the exact type and severity of the incontinence.

Absorbent pads and undergarments are also available for those who are concerned that the problem may manifest when they are away from home.

REFERENCES:

"Urinary Incontinence in Women." National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC). 2 Sept. 2010. <http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/uiwomen/>.

Buckley, Brian S., and Marie Carmela M. Lapitan. "Prevalence of Urinary Incontinence in Men, Women, and Children--Current Evidence: Findings of the Fourth International Consultation on Incontinence." Urology 76.2 (2010), 265-270.

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