Urinary Incontinence and the Loss of Control

2011-12-15 | |
Last updated: 2019-11-24

We might like to believe that we are in control of our bodily functions. However, the vast majority of activities that take place in our body are not within our direct control. Sure we can make our best effort to burp quietly, to cover our nose when we sneeze or to only pass gas once we have safely reached a bathroom. However, this is usually as much control as we actually have. In fact, loss of bodily control is far more common than we might believe, especially the loss of bladder control through Urinary Incontinence.

Unfortunately, because of our optimistic belief that we have control and our belief that having control is so important, the development of such a humbling and debilitating condition is often kept secret. This means that people can remain unaware of causes of the condition as well as the treatment options. Instead, many will unnecessarily endure the consequences of having a leaky bladder.

What is Urinary Incontinence or a Leaky Bladder?

In simplest terms, Urinary Incontinence is the inability to control when we urinate. Under normal conditions, the urinary sphincter, located at the bottom of the bladder, ensures that urine stays in the bladder until we are ready to urinate. The urinary sphincter is a ring of muscle that applies constant pressure to part of the tube that runs from our bladder to the outside of our body. By clamping this tube, the sphincter holds the urine in our bladders, providing bladder control.

Stress Incontinence as a Cause for Leaky Bladder

One common cause of a leaky bladder can be directly from weak sphincter muscles themselves. If the muscles in the sphincter are unable to clench tightly enough, some liquid will leak from the bladder. Additionally, disease and injury of the nervous system can prevent the proper nerve signaling. Such signally normally causes the sphincter to continue holding the urine in the bladder.

Some of the more common situations in which we can observe his form of Urinary Incontinence are when additional pressure is placed on the bladder. Laughing, coughing, sneezing and even standing up can all apply sufficient pressure to cause the bladder to leak. This form of Urinary Incontinence, called stress incontinence, is the most common cause of a leaky bladder.

Urge Incontinence

Urinary Incontinence can also develop from more active causes. One situation in which this can occur is if the bladder does not expand properly or stay expanded as fluids arrive from the kidneys. In this case, the bladder will only hold a small amount of liquid before bladder muscles involuntarily contract. The muscles than begin to apply force to the urinary sphincter. This causes a sudden urge to urinate. Once the bladder applies too much force to the sphincter, the sphincter begins to leak.

This form of incontinence is called Urge Incontinence and is associated with conditions such as overactive bladder and interstitial cystitis.

Overflow Incontinence

The least common form of Urinary Incontinence occurs when the opposite condition is present in terms of bladder muscle contraction. If the bladder muscles are too weak to force urine out, then the bladder can stay full. If the bladder is full, any urine coming into the bladder from the kidneys will force some urine to leak out. This results in a constant dribble of urine.

How Many People are Affected by Urinary Incontinence?

Including all these possible types, Urinary Incontinence affects between 1 in 20 to 1 in 12 people. Women are by far the most at risk. Women have an approximately 5 to 6 times higher chance of developing the condition than men. Among the elderly, roughly 50% will suffer from some form of Urinary Incontinence. What this means is that millions of people suffer from the loss of control that comes with the condition. As the average age of the population increases, this situation is only going to get worse.

However, Urinary Incontinence is significantly under diagnosed and under treated. Based on research activities sponsored by the National Association for Urinary Incontinence, only 1 in 8 people who suffer from the condition receive a formal diagnosis. The average time for women to receive a diagnosis is more than 6 years from the time the first symptoms were experienced. Only purchasing trends for adult “diapers” provide an insight that roughly 25% of women will experience episodes of Urinary Incontinence during their lifetimes.

What are the Consequences of Urinary Incontinence?

In part, because of the stigma associated with bladder control issues and because it can limit people’s physical activities, Urinary Incontinence can have a serious effect on the quality of life. Based on research from the University of California San Francisco, researchers found that Urinary Incontinence caused “significant” reduction in the quality of life. This occurred even when patients only experienced the problem once each month. As patients experience the symptoms more frequently, many became distressed by the problem.

In addition to distress, a leaky bladder can also lead to depression. In research from the University of Iowa, researchers found that the odds of developing depression were 40% higher for women with mild to medium levels of incontinence. The odds were 80% for women with the more severe symptoms in comparison to women with full bladder control. Clearly the lack of control of the bladder has serious effects on our happiness.

Whether due to depression or also due to physical disability, Urinary Incontinence also leads to social isolation. In a study of older adults in Japan, by the Kumamoto Red Cross Health Care Center, 61% of men and 46% of women who were unable to leave their homes were diagnosed to be suffering from Urinary Incontinence. Yet among those with the condition, only 19% chose to see a doctor regarding the problem.


While we like to believe that we have control over our bodies, much of what our bodies do is out of our direct control. Conditions such as Urinary Incontinence clearly demonstrate this. But too often, our beliefs regarding control over our bodies can cloud our judgment. Instead of seeking readily available treatments for this common medical condition, too many of us will suffer significantly in shame and silence.

A far more productive approach is to dismiss the social stigma. Then simply look at these symptoms as part of a medical problem needing a solution. There is simply no good reason to suffer in silence for any condition, let alone a loss of bladder control.

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Category: General Health, Health Risks, Symptom Information

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