This post was reviewed by our Director of Clinical Excellence and Oversight.
If you’re one of the many women in America experiencing urinary incontinence, you don’t need to feel embarrassed. You’re not alone.
Currently, there are 15-25 million people experiencing incontinence in the United States, and up to 80% of them are women. Research shows that urinary incontinence in women is fairly common; in fact, up to 57% of women over 40 will experience it in some form.
Causes of Incontinence in Women
Many factors play a role in why incontinence occurs more frequently in women than in men. Here are a few that you should know about, and some options for managing it effectively.
Basic anatomy can play a role in the reason women experience incontinence. This is largely due to the differences between male and female urinary systems and how they function.
The first big difference is the length of the urethra. In men, the urethra averages 20-22 cm long. For a woman, the average urethra measures only 4 cm. The shorter female urethra makes women more prone to urinary tract infections, which can result in incontinence (see below).
Another difference is the location of the sphincter muscles. In women, the primary urinary sphincter muscles are part of the pelvic floor, which means that any weakening of the pelvic floor can also affect the sphincter. In men, the primary sphincter is located just below the bladder, away from the pelvic floor muscles. Additionally, the prostate gland surrounds the male urethra, providing soft pressure as well. Below the prostate are the pelvic floor muscles, which work together with the sphincter and prostate to help contain urine.
Both pregnancy and childbirth can sometimes be the causes of urinary incontinence in women. During pregnancy, the womb may put extra pressure on bladder.
This additional pressure can make it more difficult to
contain urine, resulting in leakage during a cough, sneeze, or laugh. Childbirth puts major stress on the pelvic muscles, which can cause them to be severely weakened or stretched.
Incontinence can also be a result of going through menopause. After menopause, the body produces less estrogen, a key hormone that plays a role in the health of the urinary system. Without the presence of estrogen, the bladder lining may weaken, sometimes leading to incontinence.
Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)
Urinary tract infections (UTI) may also cause a temporary form of incontinence. During a UTI, bacteria travels up the urethra and settles in the bladder. When this happens, it can cause inflammation in the bladder, leading to incontinence. It’s not uncommon for incontinence to be major symptom of a urinary tract infection. Incontinence caused by a UTI is usually temporary, and should go away once the infection is gone.
Managing Urinary Incontinence in Women:
There are many options available for women to choose from for managing incontinence. Depending on the type of incontinence and the symptoms, some may be more effective than others. In order to know what’s right for you, you should visit your doctor to learn more about your unique situation.
Incontinence products are the most common items used to manage incontinence. They absorb leakage and lock it away, keeping the skin dry. There are many different types of incontinence products, each one designed to manage a different level of output.
Some insurance plans will cover the cost of incontinence supplies. This means you could use your health insurance to cover the cost of bladder control pads, adult briefs, or pull-ons. Nearly all Medicaid plans cover incontinence supplies, along with some private plans.
Some medical devices may help to reduce the effects of incontinence. A Pessary, for example, is a stiff disc that’s inserted near the bladder to provide it more support, reducing leakage. There are many devices that could be used to help incontinence, but their use is largely dependent on your unique situation. Talking with a doctor is the best way to determine if a medical device is an appropriate solution for you.
Because incontinence is often the result of weakened pelvic muscles, it’s possible that strengthening them can help reduce leakage. Exercises such as Kegels and yoga for incontinence can help restore lost strength and provide more support to the bladder.
Some medications can help reduce incontinence, particularly if incontinence is caused by an overactive bladder. These medications generally work by relaxing the bladder muscles, which keeps it from contracting sporadically and releasing urine. Medications that treat infections that cause incontinence (such as a UTI) can also help reduce leakage.
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