Awkward Leaks: The Meaning of Incontinence & How to Fix It

You likely 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?

meaning of 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. 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. But there’s good news! Incontinence is a treatable condition for many people and doesn’t have to be a natural part of aging. It should be treated as soon as possible to prevent it from getting worse. The key to successful treatment is identifying early on your specific type of incontinence.

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.

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:

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). Let’s consider SUI, the most common type of incontinence.

Stressed about stress incontinence?

Those with SUI have several treatment options and typically benefit from toning their pelvic floor muscles. The simplest way to strengthen pelvic floor 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.

Various devices train the pelvic floor muscles and typically taken the form of vaginally (or anally) inserted electrical probes. Although effective, women (and men) are frequently hesitant to pursue this invasive treatment. In 2019, the FDA cleared a new device to treat stress incontinence using externally applied stimulation to actively exercise the pelvic floor. Because it’s noninvasive, this device promotes patient convenience and comfort, and therefore compliance with treatment. The last option would be surgery for the most severe cases.

You’re not alone!

Urinary incontinence can be isolating, causing embarrassment and worry. 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 about both the meaning of incontinence, as well as its solutions by providing resources and support for individuals and families dealing with incontinence. A few favorites are:

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 article “Best Kegel Devices of 2020,” a great resource that’s been read over 10,000 times. Other resources:

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