Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Urinary incontinence is a loss of control over urination. Urine leaks before you are able to get to a toilet.

There are many types of urinary incontinence.

One type is stress incontinence. Your pelvic muscles are located beneath your bladder. Stress incontinence occurs when your pelvic muscles aren't strong enough. They cannot withstand a "stress" or pressure pushing on the bladder.

When your pelvic muscles give way, they release their squeeze around the bottom of your bladder. As a result, urine can drain out.

Stress incontinence is common during:

  • Pregnancy

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing

  • Lifting

  • Laughing

  • Some awkward body movements

Another common type of urinary incontinence is urge incontinence. This is also called overactive bladder. The bladder is overly sensitive to stretching and nerve signals. You may feel the urge to urinate when your bladder is only partly filled. Also, your bladder can squeeze after only a minimal trigger.

Many women have urinary incontinence after childbirth. Pregnancy and childbirth can affect the conditioning of the pelvic muscles. They can also stretch and injure the pelvic nerves. Incontinence may last for a surprisingly long time after childbirth.

Temporary urinary incontinence is frequently caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI). It can also result from uterine prolapse. This is a sagging of the uterus. Irritation of the vagina (vaginitis) is another cause of temporary incontinence.

Neurologic problems such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury can cause incontinence. They can cause the bladder to overfill and overflow. Or they can cause the bladder to empty unpredictably.

Incontinence can be a complication of radiation treatment or prostate surgery.

Some people have normal bladder function and control. But they are not able to move easily. This can lead to urinary incontinence because the person cannot get to the bathroom in time.

Urinary incontinence is more common in women than in men.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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