You don’t need a doctor to diagnose a leaky bladder, but you may not know the exact meaning of incontinence. Urinary incontinence refers to a lack of control over urine flow. If you leak urine when you don’t want to, then you’re incontinent. These “accidents” or “whoops moments” are frustrating and embarrassing, impacting how you live your life. Learn about the definition and type of incontinence, plus the available solutions for leak-free living.
What’s the meaning of incontinence?
Women have said, “I leak occasionally when I sneeze, but I don’t have incontinence!” You don’t need to completely pee your pants to be considered incontinent. The severity of bladder leaks varies greatly. For some people, the meaning of incontinence translates to just the occasional small leak that is managed by wearing an absorbent pad. For others, leaks are more severe, occurring several times per day and requiring adult diapers and catheters. Still others struggle with feeling that they always have to rush to urinate, requiring constant awareness of the nearest bathroom.
Regardless of severity, each type deals with the fear of leaks showing through clothing, embarrassing smells, and uncomfortable wetness. Questions arise, such as what does incontinence mean for my future? Does incontinence mean I can’t travel or run anymore? Does incontinence mean I have diapers in my future? But there’s good news! Incontinence is treatable for many people and doesn’t have to be a necessary part of aging. The key to successful treatment is diagnosing your type of incontinence as early as possible.
Wait, there’s more than one type of incontinence?
Once you’ve learned the general meaning of incontinence, it’s time to get more specific and determine your specific type of incontinence. Some are more related to the health of your muscles, while others are associated with your nervous system. Here are a few of the most common types:
- Stress Urinary Incontinence (SUI). Telling signs include leaking when you cough, sneeze, laugh, or exercise. These and other activities increase pressure or stress on the bladder, which overwhelms weakened bladder and pelvic floor muscles. Childbirth and aging can weaken women’s bladder muscles, resulting in SUI.
- Urge Urinary Incontinence (UUI). If you experience a sudden urge to pee and find yourself rushing to bathroom, you likely have what’s called overactive bladder. If you don’t make it in time and end up having accidents, you have UUI. This condition has more to do with the nerves that control your bladder than the pelvic floor muscles.
- Mixed Incontinence. Just as the name implies, if you have both stress and urge incontinence, your doctor will refer to it as mixed incontinence. As many as 85% of people with incontinence have this type.
- Overflow Incontinence. Some people don’t feel the urge to urinate, even when their bladder is full, causing their bladder to “overflow” and leak.
- Other types. Less common types of incontinence include functional incontinence and total incontinence. These conditions can be associated with spinal cord injury, fistulas, and other medical conditions.
5 Misunderstood Myths about Urinary Incontinence
The word “incontinence” can spark fear in even the bravest people, conjuring up all kinds of images from soaked pants to adult diapers. Because many people are embarrassed to speak with their clinicians about bladder leaks, there’s a lot of misinformation about incontinence, including these popular myths.
1. Incontinence is an unavoidable part of aging.
Age does not directly cause incontinence. Just as with any other muscle group, it’s important to stay fit so the pelvic floor muscles can do their job: support your pelvic organs (bladder, rectum, vagina). When these muscles are stretched from childbirth or weakened from lack of use as you age, they cannot support the bladder effectively. Kegel exercises should be part of every woman’s routine to maintain a healthy pelvic floor.
2. Only women suffer from incontinence.
Although women are more prone to incontinence because of childbirth, about 11% of men report having urinary incontinence. Of this group, there is a higher rate of urge urinary incontinence because of prostate surgery. UUI is when there’s a frequent urge to urinate, followed by an accident before the patient can reach a toilet. Causes include infection, damage from surgery, or more complicated disorders.
3. Medication can fix incontinence.
There is no available medication that is approved by the FDA to treat SUI. Some drugs can relax the bladder muscles to help with overactive bladders, but these cannot strengthen a weakened pelvic floor.
4. Surgery is the only cure for incontinence.
Pelvic mesh surgery has been controversial and is a last resort for severe incontinence. Your doctor can suggest many conservative options that are proven to help with bladder leaks. In addition to Kegel exercises, some of these treatments include Kegel weights, trainers, and noninvasive exercisers, such as ELITONE.
5. Incontinence is irreversible.
When you start noticing leaks, you may think this is the beginning of the inevitable end! But SUI can be reversible, and the earlier you address the problem, the better. As with any muscle, your pelvic muscles lose their shape and strength without proper exercise. So talk to your doctor about how to tone your pelvic floor, as well as eliminating risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, and chronic coughing.
So I have incontinence. Now what?
The next question to ask is whether your incontinence can be treated (and potentially cured), or is your only option to simply manage your leaks. The adult diaper industry is happy to provide you with plenty of information on how to manage bladder problems, but true solutions depend on the type of incontinence and vary from simple lifestyle changes to invasive surgical procedures. The most common treatments include:
- Dietary changes – for UUI
- Bladder Training – for UUI
- Medications – for UUI
- Kegel exercises – for SUI and UUI
- Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy – for SUI
- Vaginal Weights – for SUI
- Biofeedback Devices – for SUI
- Vaginal muscle stimulators – for SUI, and some UUI
- External muscle stimulators – for SUI, and some UUI
- Magnetic stimulation – for SUI
- Surgery with implanted mesh – for SUI
- Surgery without synthetic material – for SUI
- Implanted sacral nerve stimulators – for UUI
- Tibial nerve stimulators – for UUI
- Pessaries – for SUI
- Radiofrequency Therapies – for SUI (not FDA-approved)
- Bulking Agents (injections) – for SUI
This list may be overwhelming, but don’t be discouraged. One benefit of all these treatment options is that if one solution doesn’t work for you, there’s an alternative. For example, it’s often possible to start with a conservative, low-risk option before moving to a more invasive, higher-risk solution (if necessary).
Stressed about stress incontinence?
SUI is the most common type of incontinence and has several treatment options that typically involve toning the pelvic floor muscles. The simplest way to strengthen these muscles is through Kegel exercises. Although a simple concept, Kegel exercises are not always easy. Many women (and men) struggle with contracting the correct muscles consistently enough to make a difference. A pelvic floor physical therapist may make this easier, but there are challenges with physical therapy.
In 2019, the FDA cleared a new device called ELITONE to treat SUI using externally applied stimulation to actively exercise the pelvic floor. ELITONE is noninvasive and can be worn under clothing, so it prioritizes the patient’s comfort and convenience while still delivering effective treatment.
You’re not alone!
Urinary incontinence can be isolating, causing embarrassment and constant anxiety. It’s a highly stigmatized medical condition and not something many people are comfortable discussing with friends or family. People tend to manage bladder leaks privately and often fail to seek medical treatment.
Several organizations are dedicated to educating the public about the meaning of incontinence and its treatment options by providing resources and support for patients and families. A few favorites are:
- National Association for Continence. This group provides education and support for incontinence patients and caregivers.
- Simon Foundation for Continence. Their mission is to remove the stigma surrounding incontinence and provide hope for those with bladder leakage.
- Pelvic Guru. This site helps you locate a nearby pelvic floor physical therapist.
Where can I learn about treatment options?
Incontinence is a medical condition, so it makes sense to get input from a medical professional. Several different types of clinicians can provide guidance and treatment. Consider help from primary care physicians, gynecologists, urologists, urogynecologists, and pelvic floor physical therapists.
If you have stress incontinence and are looking for a comparison of Kegel exercise devices, check out the Best Kegel Devices of 2021, a great resource that’s been viewed more than 10,000 times.