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Ignoring Nature's Call

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Lori M. Noble, MD, a primary care physician at Spruce Internal Medicine, located at Penn Medicine Washington Square, discusses the health risks of ignoring nature’s call.

Dr. Lori Nobel
Dr. Lori Noble

The long, grueling days of medical school and residency impart many lessons, far beyond those related to patient care. For instance, the mantra of my residency experience was "eat, sleep and pee when you can."

While I always made eating and sleeping a priority, urinating had a tendency to fall off my to-do list during a busy day.

I imagine this is not something unique to a career in medicine; I'm sure any woman who works in a demanding field can recall a time (or several) when she "held it in" a little longer than would have otherwise been comfortable. It's a pretty common sacrifice we make to get that one last thing done, typically without giving much thought to any potential consequence.

I recently came across an interesting article in a popular women's magazine that addressed the potential impact of holding it in and thought I'd share what I read and add my medical opinion.

Bladders are unique like fingerprints.

There is no real agreed upon amount of time that is considered okay to hold in urine. This is because every woman is different in terms of how hydrated she stays, how large her bladder is and how sensitive her bladder is to the stretch that happens as it fills with urine.

Bottom Line: The average woman will feel comfortable holding her urine for between three and six hours, but there's a lot of variability.

So why not hold it in?

The authors downplay any consequence of holding in urine for a prolonged period of time, noting that the "worst case scenario" is a "bit more of a likelihood" of developing a urinary tract infection (UTI). As a physician and a woman, I take issue with this for a couple reasons:

Women's bathroom sign

1. UTIs can be dangerous. In some people, the infection can spread from the bladder up to the kidneys and even into the bloodstream if not treated quickly. Pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions that can affect bladder function (i.e., Multiple Sclerosis, Diabetes, etc.) are already at increased risk for UTIs, so they should be extra vigilant about emptying their bladders regularly to prevent infection.

2. Many women struggle as they get older with urinary incontinence (the loss of bladder control). Stress urinary incontinence is leakage when there is increased pressure applied to the bladder, like with coughing, laughing or jogging. Urge urinary incontinence is leakage because of an intense, involuntary contraction of the bladder, often described as the "I gotta go, I gotta go, I gotta go" feeling. Both can be made worse if the bladder fills up beyond a comfortable capacity.

Bottom Line: There are potential consequences of holding in urine for a prolonged period of time. Listen to your body and take time to go when you feel the urge.

Are there benefits to holding it in?

There is some evidence that holding urine can "train" the bladder to be less sensitive to the urge to go, and thus allow a woman to wait a bit longer between bathroom trips. In my opinion, the risks of holding it as outlined above, outweigh this potential benefit.

Bottom Line: When it comes to holding in urine, the risks of infection, leakage and pain outweigh the potential benefit of a modest increase in bladder capacity.

So next time you feel the urge to go, try to fight the instinct to just cross your legs and hold it in for a bit longer – your bladder will thank you for it later!

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