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Urinary Incontinence—Female

(Incontinence, Urinary; Incontinence, Stress; Incontinence, Urge; Incontinence, Overflow; Incontinence, Functional; Stress Incontinence; Urge Incontinence; Overflow Incontinence; Functional Incontinence; Overactive Bladder)

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More InDepth Information on This Condition

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Urinary incontinence is the loss of voluntary bladder control that can cause leakage of urine. It can be temporary or last for a long time.

There are four type of long term or permanent incontinence:

  • Stress incontinence—most common type. Leakage occurs when there is extra pressure on the bladder. Triggers may include laughing, sneezing, lifting heavy objects, or exercise.
  • Urge incontinence—known as overactive bladder, a loss of bladder control following a strong urge to urinate. The bladder is unable to hold urine long enough to make it to a restroom.
  • Overflow incontinence—the bladder will not empty so, urine builds up and the bladder overflows.
  • Functional incontinence—there is normal bladder control, but the toilet can't be reached in time.

People may have just one or a combination of these types.


Incontinence has several different causes. The cause could also be unclear.

Temporary incontinence can be caused by:

Muscles Involved in Incontinence in Women

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  • Stress incontinence may be caused by:
    • Weakening of muscles that suspend the bladder
    • Weakening of muscles that control urine flow
    • Obesity
  • Urge incontinence may be caused or worsened by:
  • Overflow incontinence may be caused or worsened by:
    • A bladder that is blocked, such as by a scar in the urethra (stricture)
    • Fecal impaction
    • Drugs (such as antidepressants, hypnotics, antipsychotics, antihistamines, calcium channel blockers)
    • Vitamin B12 deficiency
    • Weak bladder muscles
    • Nerve damage due to:
      • Surgery
      • Diabetes
      • Spinal cord injuries
      • Other factors
  • Functional incontinence may be caused by:
    • Medical conditions that make it difficult to move like severe arthritis
    • Drugs that cause confusion or sedation

Some incontinence may be caused by a fistula. A fistula is an abnormal opening between the bladder and another nearby structure. The fistula can make it difficult for the bladder to act as it should.

Risk Factors

Urinary incontinence is more common in women age 65 years or older.

Factors that may increase the risk of urinary incontinence include:


Any loss of bladder control can be considered incontinence.

Call your doctor if you have a loss of urine control. Your doctor can help you determine the underlying cause.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. You will be asked how often you empty your bladder and patterns of urine leakage. Your doctor will do a physical exam to look for any physical causes such as blockages or nerve problems. You may be referred to a specialist.

Blood tests or urine tests may be done to look for infections or conditions like diabetes that can cause incontinence.

Tests that can help assess the flow of urine include:

  • Stress test—you relax then cough as your doctor watches for loss of urine (this will confirm if you have stress incontinence)
  • Urodynamic tests—tests that measure the flow of urine and pressure in the bladder

The doctor may also need to view the structures in and around the urinary tract. This may be done with:

  • Ultrasound—a test that uses sound waves to examine structures inside the body to determine the residual urine volume after voiding
  • Cystoscopy—a thin tube with a tiny camera is inserted into the urethra to view the urethra and bladder

Your doctor may ask you to keep a diary of your urination habits.


Treatments are based on the cause of the urinary incontinence.

Temporary incontinence may be relieved by managing the conditions associated with the incontinence.

Weight loss may help reduce the number of episodes due to stress or urge incontinence in people who are overweight or obese. Talk to your doctor about a weight loss program that is right for you.

Initial treatment relies on behavior changes and strengthening pelvic floor muscles. Behavior changes include:

  • Limiting the amount of fluids consumed throughout the day.
  • Decreasing caffeine—caffeine has been linked to worsening of urinary incontinence.
  • Planning frequent bathroom trips throughout the day to prevent accidents.

Methods to increase strength in the pelvic floor muscles include:

  • Kegel exercises—focuses on muscles that hold the bladder in place and those that control urine flow.
  • Painless electrical stimulation—may strengthen the muscles more quickly; helpful for stress incontinence.
  • Pelvic floor exercises using cone-shaped weights that are placed in the vagina.
  • Biofeedback—a device signals how strong you are at contracting your muscles during exercise.

Surgical procedures may be done for incontinence that is not responding to the conservative treatments above. Surgical options include:

  • Placement of strips of material or sutures to support structures in the area and relieve pressure on the urethra. There are several different types of surgery but a common option, called a urethral suspension uses mesh to help support the urethra.
  • Collagen injection into the wall of the urethra. This substance bulks up the wall of the urethra to help stop leaks.

Initial treatment also depends on behavior changes and strengthening pelvic floor muscles. Behavior changes include:

  • Drinking less fluid throughout the day
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • Avoiding drinking at bedtime
  • Keeping a log of urination schedule and accidents.

Kegel exercises can help strengthen pelvic floor muscles and relieve some symptoms.

Medications may be recommended. Anticholinergics is the most common medication. They can relax the muscles of the bladder. Other medications may be used in combination to help manage symptoms.

Nerve stimulation may be used if urge incontinence does not respond to behavior modification or medication. A device will send pulses to the nerves that control the bladder. This has been shown to help stimulate bladder control. In some cases the device is implanted in the back, similar to a pacemaker.

Treatment for overflow incontinence is to allow the bladder to completely empty. If a blockage is causing the problems, surgery may be needed to open the urine pathways.

Other causes of overflow incontinence may require the use of a catheter to allow urine to drain from the bladder. People can use certain catheters at home.

Absorbent pads or diapers can be used to manage urinary leakage. Plugs and patches can also be used to help hold urine in place.

A supportive device called a pessary may also be used. Pessaries are devices that raise the uterus or the prolapsed bladder. It can decrease pressure on the bladder.


Incontinence is really a symptom of many other conditions. There are several ways to prevent incontinence:

  • If advised by your doctor, do exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, such as Kegel exercises. This is especially important if you are pregnant.
  • Reduce your intake of substances that lead to incontinence such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain drugs.
  • Lose weight, if needed.
  • Eat a healthy diet to avoid constipation.

Urology Care Foundation


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases



Women's Health Matters



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Last reviewed September 2013 by Adrienne Carmack, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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