What Is Urinary Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence – the inability to control and hold in your urine – is a common problem, but that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing. Some people leak urine when they cough, sneeze, laugh or exercise, while others experience sudden and very strong urges to pee that often result in an accident. Regardless of the severity or frequency of your issue, urinary incontinence is stressful, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Urinary incontinence affects women more often than men.

What Causes Urinary Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is usually a symptom of another condition. Sometimes certain foods or drinks, such as caffeine, alcohol, soft drinks, sedatives and heart medicines can cause urinary incontinence. Other conditions that can cause urinary incontinence include:

  • Urinary tract infection.
  • Constipation.
  • Pregnancy, where hormonal changes and pressure from the uterus impacts the bladder.
  • Vaginal delivery in childbirth, which weakens the muscles needed for bladder control.  
  • Normal aging of the bladder muscles.
  • Menopause, where lack of estrogen can affect the lining of the bladder and urethra.
  • Hysterectomy, as any surgery that involves a woman's reproductive system can damage the pelvic floor muscles.
  • Enlarged prostate.
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Obstruction or tumor along the urinary tract.
  • Neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or a stroke.

What are the Symptoms of Urinary Incontinence?

Some people experience only mild and occasional urine leaks. Others have frequent accidents. Here are a few types of urinary incontinence:

  • Stress incontinence: You experience urine leaks when you sneeze, cough, laugh, exercise or lift heavy objects.
  • Urge incontinence: You experience a sudden and intense urge to pee followed by an involuntary loss of urine. You don't have enough time to get to the bathroom once you feel this urge.
  • Overflow Incontinence: When your bladder can’t empty fully and you experience dribbling. 

Diagnosis of Urinary Incontinence

Your physician will want to do a thorough history and examination to help diagnose the type of urinary incontinence you have an any underlying causes. Your physician may recommend a urinalysis to check for signs of infection. You may be asked to keep a bladder diary to record how much you drink and how often you urinate and how often you experience incontinence. To determine if there are any obstructions in your urinary tract or any issues with your bladder muscles, you may be asked to pee into a container that measures urine output. Afterwards, your doctor will use an ultrasound to see how much urine is left in your bladder. 

Treatment at Penn

Specialists at Penn Medicine's Departments of Urology and Advanced Gynecologic Surgery and Urogynecology have years of experience helping people manage their incontinence and overcome some of the most complex gynecological conditions.

Penn Medicine surgeons and physicians offer new techniques in minimally invasive and robotic-assisted surgery. These methods lead to shortened recovery times, reduced pain and blood loss, letting you get back to your life in record time.

When you choose Penn, you choose to work with a dedicated team who continue to lead the field, advancing the science of gynecologic medicine. 


Penn Programs & Services for Urinary Incontinence

Voiding Dysfunction and Incontinence Program

Find out about our evaluation and treatment services for conditions that affect bladder control.

Overactive Bladder Program

Our teams are improving quality of life for those with overactive bladder.

Female Urology Program

Learn about treatment options for female urology conditions.

Three women in a swimming pool
Urogynecology

Pelvic floor and bladder disorders affect women of all ages. Our urogynecology team is here to help.

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