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Types of urinary incontinence

Estimates suggest urinary incontinence affects between three and six million men and women in the UK to some extent during their lives.

Around twice as many women than men are affected by urinary incontinence, and urinary problems are more common as people get older.

Learn more about the different types of urinary incontinence.

Stress incontinence

Stress incontinence may happen when there is an increase in abdominal pressure, such as when you exercise, laugh, sneeze or cough. Urine leaks due to weakened pelvic floor muscles and tissues.

Causes of stress incontinence include:

  • Multiple pregnancies and childbirths, which cause stretching and damage
  • Being overweight
  • Genetic weaknesses
  • Radiotherapy
  • Other chronic conditions

Urge incontinence

Urge incontinence is often called 'overactive bladder'. You have an urgent need to go to the bathroom, and may not get there in time, leaking urine.

Causes of overactive bladder include:

  • Damage to the bladder's nerves
  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Damage to muscles

Conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and stroke can harm muscles or nerves, resulting in urge incontinence.

Some women have both of these types of urinary incontinence - "stress" and "urge". Doctors call this mixed urinary incontinence.

Overflow incontinence

You may have overflow incontinence if you are not able to completely empty your bladder when you urinate. As a result, you have a constant or frequent dribble of urine. This is the type of urinary incontinence that most often strikes men.

Causes of overflow incontinence include:

  • Weak bladder muscles
  • Blockage of the urethra, such as by prostate enlargement
  • Medical conditions such as tumours

Functional incontinence

With functional incontinence, physical problems such as arthritis or cognitive problems such as dementia prevent you from getting to the bathroom in time.

Treatment for different types of urinary incontinence

To improve or eliminate urinary incontinence, you can make lifestyle changes and get treatment depending on which type you have.

For stress incontinence, treatment options include:

Pelvic floor exercises. If you've had a baby, chances are you've been told to do pelvic floor (Kegel) exercises. These help to strengthen the pelvic floor after childbirth. It is wise to keep doing these exercises to keep your pelvic muscles and tissues strong, which can help prevent stress incontinence. Best of all, pelvic floor exercises can be done anytime, anywhere. To do them, pretend you are trying to stop the flow of urine or stop passing wind. Pelvic floor exercises should be done every day, five times a day. Each time you contract the muscles of the pelvic floor, hold for a slow count of five and then relax. Repeat this 10 times for one set of exercises.

Medication or surgery. Medication for stress incontinence can help tighten muscles at the bladder neck, preventing leakage. Or, in more severe cases, surgery can help. One procedure pulls the bladder back up to a more normal position, relieving the pressure and leakage. Another surgical procedure involves securing the bladder with a "sling," a piece of tissue or other material that holds the bladder up to prevent leakage.

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