Urinary Incontinence

Urinary incontinence means not being able to control the release of urine. Sometimes it's caused by a temporary problem, like a urinary infection, and goes away when the infection is treated. In other cases, it's caused by changes in the muscles or nerves around the bladder and the problem is an ongoing one. Treatment includes exercises, medicines, and sometimes surgery.


What causes urinary incontinence?

Urinary incontinence may be caused by weak muscles in the lower urinary tract. They can also be caused by problems or damage either in the urinary tract or in the nerves that control urination. Another cause is bladder muscles that squeeze so hard that the sphincter muscle can't hold back the urine.


How is urinary incontinence diagnosed?

To diagnose the cause of your urinary incontinence, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your past health.

Your doctor will ask about what and how much you drink. You will also be asked how much and how often you urinate and leak urine. It may be easier for you to answer questions if you keep track of these things using a bladder diary for 3 or 4 days before you see your doctor.

Your doctor may do some simple tests to look for the cause of your bladder control problem. For example, your doctor may ask you to cough while you are standing to see if you leak urine. If your doctor thinks that your problem may have more than one cause, you will likely have more tests.

Here are some tests that may be done to find the type and cause of your urinary incontinence.

  • Urinalysis and urine culture. These tests show whether you have a urinary tract infection (UTI) or blood or sugar in your urine. It can also show if a man has prostatitis.
  • Bladder stress test. It simulates the accidental release of urine that may occur when you cough, sneeze, laugh, or exercise. Women may also get a Bonney test. It's similar to the bladder stress test, but the bladder neck is lifted slightly with a finger or tool inserted into the vagina while the bladder stress is applied.
  • Pad test. This can help show how much urine is leaking. You are given an absorbent pad that has been weighed. You wear the pad until urine leaks, and then you return the pad to be weighed again. The increased weight of the pad gives an estimate of how much urine leaked.
  • X-rays or ultrasound. These are used to examine changes in the position of the bladder and urethra when you urinate, cough, or strain.
  • Urodynamic testing. It is typically done only if surgery is being considered or if treatment has not worked for you. The tests may include:
    • Uroflowmetry. This test measures your rate of urine flow. A low peak flow rate can be a sign of a blockage or a weak bladder.
    • Pressure flow studies. This testing measures pressure changes in the bladder as the flow changes. It's often used when the cause of your symptoms isn't clear. It can help show if the cause may be a blockage or a problem with the bladder muscles or nerves.
    • Post-void residual volume. This test measures the amount of urine left after you empty your bladder.
    • Cystometry. This is a series of tests to measure bladder pressure at different levels of fullness.
  • Electromyogram (EMG). This test records the electrical activity of muscles.
  • Cystoscopic exam. This is a test that allows your doctor to see inside the urinary tract by using a thin, lighted tube.
  • Cystourethrogram. This is an X-ray of your bladder and urethra while you are urinating.


How is urinary incontinence treated?

Treatment depends on the type of urinary incontinence you have. It may include bladder training, changes to your diet, medicines, and Kegel exercises to strengthen the muscles that control the flow of urine. Or it may be a combination of these. Surgery is sometimes needed.