What Causes Incontinence? Understanding the Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

Are you dealing with incontinence — sometimes known as bladder weakness? 

It is something that most of us know about but don't talk about. 

Because let's be honest, incontinence can be embarrassing and a nuisance to cope with.

But the good news is that you no longer have to deal with it alone.

In this article, we will discuss: 

  • The different types of incontinence 
  • What causes it
  • How to cope with it; and 
  • How to maintain your dignity with some help.

Table of Contents

What Can Cause Incontinence?

Incontinence is a common medical condition that affects millions of Americans. Common reasons for urinary incontinence include:

  • UTIs (urinary tract infections) - Infections of the urinary tract that can lead to incontinence.
  • Fibroids - A type of benign tumor that can cause urinary leakage.
  • PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) - An infection of the uterus that can cause incontinence.
  • Pregnancy and childbirth - Causes significant changes in your body, including an increased risk of urinary tract infections.
  • Lifestyle choices - Drinking too much alcohol or smoking can affect your bladder and urinary tract.

Other causes may include damaged nerves, neurological conditions, stroke, pelvic surgery, diabetes, medications, infections (herpes), etc.

causes of incontinence

Who Is Most Likely to Get Incontinence?

Although both women and men can get incontinence, women and seniors are more likely.

Women are more likely to experience incontinence due to:

  • Urinary tract infections (also known as UTIs)
  • Fibroids, benign tumors in the uterus
  • A history of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  • Experiencing pregnancy and childbirth
  • Hormonal changes that can cause urinary leakage
  • Endometriosis

Seniors are more likely to experience incontinence because they are more likely to experience:

  • Weakening of the urinary tract
  • Falls which can damage the urethra
  • Pelvic floor muscles weaken
  • Bladder cancer
  • Pelvic organ prolapse
  • Stroke

According to a study published by the University of Michigan, approximately 50 percent of women over the age of 50 experience some form of urinary leakage, as do nearly half of women aged 80 and older.

Men experience incontinence in about the same percentage of cases as women, but men experience it at a later age.

According to the National Institute on Aging, approximately 45 percent of men over the age of 65 experience some form of urinary leakage, as do about one-third of men aged 80 and older. 

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causes of incontinence

What Are the 5 Different Types of Incontinence and What Causes Them?

Incontinence is a very common condition, affecting over 33 million Americans, and it’s embarrassing to manage if you have it.

However, by understanding the different types of incontinence and what causes them, you can hopefully start to:

  • Receive care from a medical professional
  • Get some relief from your incontinence; and
  • Find the best way to live with the condition.

#1: Urge Incontinence

Have you ever felt the sudden urge to go to the bathroom, but couldn't because you were holding it?

This is called urge incontinence, and it's a common type that:

  • Can be triggered by sudden, uncontrollable movements
  • Usually happens when you're anxious or tense; and
  • Makes it challenging to hold it.

With urge incontinence, you may not be able to hold your urine when the bladder is not empty. The bladder squeezes when you don’t want it to.

The fluid in the urine can spill out of the bladder when you strain because of a weakened urethral sphincter.

What Causes Urge Incontinence?

Many things cause urge incontinence, including:

  • A weak bladder muscle
  • A weakening of the pelvic floor muscles
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Parkinson’s disease; and
  • Signs of a stroke, such as numbness or weakness on one side of the body

Dysfunctional voiding can also cause urge incontinence. Teachers, nurses, and other professionals that may require you to have to hold your urine too long while working often experience this type of incontinence.

If you experience urge incontinence, your best bet is to see a doctor. 

He or she can perform tests to determine the cause and may recommend treatments.

urinary incontinence causes

#2: Overflow Incontinence

Overflow incontinence is when you can’t empty your bladder and keep producing urine. 

In rare cases, a blockage may require surgery to relieve the obstruction. 

If you're not able to empty your bladder by yourself, your doctor may recommend a catheter.

What Causes Overflow Incontinence?

The causes of overflow incontinence can be from a number of things, such as:

  • Some kind of blockage in the bladder
  • An enlarged prostate for men; and
  • Damage to the nerves that control bladder function

Overflow incontinence can be very frustrating because you rarely know when it's going to happen. 

It requires regular monitoring by your doctor.

#3: Stress Incontinence

Stress incontinence is the most common type that women experience.

It is caused by a sudden, excessive amount of pressure on the urinary organs. 

This type of incontinence is triggered by activities, such as:

These activities can cause urinary leakage, but stress incontinence can be treated to reduce the frequency of episodes. 

What Causes Stress Incontinence?

The most common causes of stress incontinence are:

  • Weak pelvic floor muscles
  • A weak or overactive bladder; and
  • Nerve and muscle problems in the pelvic region

#4: Mixed Incontinence

Mixed incontinence is a condition that occurs when you have both urinary and fecal incontinence. 

This type of incontinence can be most embarrassing to deal with because:

  • It can happen suddenly with no warning
  • You cannot control their bowel and bladder functions simultaneously; and
  • The condition can make it difficult to perform everyday activities.

What Causes Mixed Incontinence?

There are many potential causes of mixed incontinence, including:

Typically, the cause of mixed incontinence is unknown, but it may be because of a combination of factors, which can also include age, medication, and lifestyle choices.

#5: Fecal Incontinence

Fecal incontinence is a condition characterized by an inability to control bowel movements. 

For people who deal with this type of incontinence, it's a challenging condition to live with.

Fecal incontinence can be embarrassing, especially if it happens outside of the home or during social events.

What Causes Fecal Incontinence?

There are many causes of fecal incontinence, but the most common ones include:

  • Chronic constipation and medical conditions that control the flow of stool
  • A physical condition, such as a weakened or missing anal sphincter; and
  • Damage or removal of part of the rectum or anus

what causes urinary incontinence

What Is the Main Cause of Incontinence? 

Although there are many causes for incontinence, the main causes are:

  • Pregnancy
  • Childbirth
  • Age; and
  • Prostate issues for men

Other causes may include bladder cancer, pelvic floor dysfunction, and neurologic problems.

Why Pregnancy Is One of the Main Causes of Incontinence  

Pregnancy is one of the main causes of incontinence.

The pressure on the bladder and rectum from the growing baby can cause leakage.

This can happen during pregnancy but is most common in the first few months.

Pregnancy and childbirth are usually where it begins for most women. Often, incontinence goes untreated because many women just accept it as their new normal.

Why Aging Is One of the Main Causes of Incontinence 

As we age, our bodies become less able to control our bladder and bowel muscles.

This can cause incontinence, which is when we can't control when or how much urine or feces we release.

Various reasons can cause incontinence as we age, including:

  • Injury
  • Disease; and 
  • The natural process of aging

How Is Urinary Incontinence Diagnosed and Treated? 

A doctor can diagnose urinary incontinence through a physical exam and by reviewing your medical history.

There are many treatment options for incontinence, such as:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise and avoiding heavy lifting
  • Medications, such as over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription medications for conditions like an overactive bladder; and
  • Surgery may be necessary for certain cases of severe incontinence

A combination of these treatments may be the best solution for a particular individual.

Diagnosis

There is no one definitive way to diagnose urinary incontinence.

A doctor may ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam to look for underlying causes. Diagnosis may include:

  • A careful history and physical examination
  • A doctor may perform a urinalysis to rule out other causes of urinary incontinence; and
  • A pelvic exam may be necessary to rule out any structural causes of the problem

Other tests may be necessary to rule out other causes of your symptoms and help stop incontinence.

Treatment Options

There are a variety of treatments that can treat urinary incontinence. 

Some of the most common treatments include:

Each treatment has its benefits and drawbacks, so it is important to discuss your options with a doctor before deciding.

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causes of incontinence