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Urinary Incontinence


An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of urinary incontinence.

Alternative Names


Stress Incontinence

The primary symptom is leakage from activities that apply pressure to a full bladder. High-impact exercise certainly poses the greatest risk for leaking. But stress incontinence can occur with even minor activities, such as the following:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Laughing
  • Running (sometimes even standing can produce leakage)
  • Lifting

Leakage stops when the activity stops. If the condition persists, it is more likely to be urge incontinence.

Stress incontinence occurs because the internal sphincter does not close completely. (This is the muscle that surrounds the urethra, the last part of the urinary tract.) In both men and women, the aging process causes a general weakening of the sphincter muscles and a decrease in bladder capacity. Causes of stress incontinence, however, may differ depending on gender.

Causes of Stress Incontinence in Women

In women, stress incontinence is nearly always due to one or both of the following:

  • The urethra fails to close and becomes overly movable (called urethral hypermobility).
  • The muscles around the bladder neck weaken (called intrinsic sphincteric deficiency, or ISD). Some experts believe that this problem is present to some degree in nearly all women with stress incontinence. (ISD can also occur in anyone from an inborn disorder or injury from surgery or radiation.)

Many women are prone to one or both of these problems, which can occur under the following circumstances:

  • Having had many children through vaginal deliveries. In such cases, pregnancy and childbirth strain the muscles of the pelvic floor. Of note is prolapsed uterus, in which the uterus protrudes into the vagina, which occurs in at least half of all women who have given birth. This condition can often cause incontinence.
  • Menopause. Estrogen deficiencies after menopause can cause the urethra to thin out so that it may not close properly.

Urethral Hypermobility. In urethral hypermobility the urethra does not close properly and it is too moveable (hypermobile). This condition typically occurs when the pelvic floor muscles in women become weak and the following events occur:

  • The weakened pelvic floor muscles stretch.
  • This allows the bladder to sag downward within the abdomen.
  • The sagging bladder pulls on the muscles surrounding the bladder neck (internal sphincter), which are connected to the urethra.

Stress incontinence associated with urethral hypermobility is sometimes categorized as type 1 or type 2.

  • Type 1 is the less severe form and the bladder neck and urethra remain incompletely closed.
  • In type 2, the angle of the bladder neck shifts. In such cases cystocele may occur, in which the bladder muscles bulge (herniate) into the vaginal wall.

Intrinsic sphincteric deficiency (ISD). Intrinsic sphincter deficiency (sometimes called type 3) is the other major cause of stress incontinence in women. It occurs when the bladder neck muscles are damaged or weakened. The result is twofold:

  • The bladder neck is open during filling.
  • The closing pressure around the urethra is low.

This is the most severe stress incontinence in women and usually occurs after previous surgeries for incontinence.

Causes of Stress Incontinence in Men

Prostate treatments can impair the sphincter muscles. Such treatments are the major causes of stress incontinence in men. They include the following:

Surgery or radiation for prostate cancer. Incontinence occurs in nearly all male patients for the first three to six months after radical prostatectomy. After a year of the procedure, most men retain continence, although leakage can occur.

Surgery for benign prostatic hyperplasia. Stress incontinence occurs in 1% to 5% of men after transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP), the standard treatment for severe benign prostatic hyperplasia.

TURP - series Click the icon to see an illustrated series detailing TURP surgery.

It should be noted that incontinence after prostate procedures is often a combination of urge and stress. In fact, because studies often combine the two types of incontinence, it is not always clear which predominates.


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