What is Urinary Incontinence?

What is Urinary Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control that causes urine to leak. This common condition can vary in severity and have several different causes. With proper treatment, the symptoms of urinary incontinence can be managed.

Types of Urinary Incontinence


Loss of bladder control can happen in many different ways and for several different reasons. There are six main types of urinary incontinence:

  • Stress incontinence: The leakage of urine when stress is placed on the bladder. Sneezing, laughing, exercising, or lifting something heavy are common actions that can put pressure on the bladder and trigger leakage. Usually, only a small amount of urine leaks due to stress incontinence.
  • Urge incontinence: This type of incontinence is caused by an overactive bladder and occurs when you have an intense urge to urinate—even if your bladder is not full. This is followed by involuntary leakage of urine. Urge incontinence can also be associated with feeling a frequent need to urinate.
  • Overflow incontinence: If your bladder never completely empties, you may experience frequent or constant leakage of a small amount of urine. This can happen when a blockage prevents the bladder from emptying. Overflow incontinence is more common in men than women.
  • Mixed incontinence: If you experience symptoms of both stress and urge incontinence, this is called mixed incontinence. This is more common in women.
Graph showing different types of urinary incontinence

Causes of Urinary Incontinence


Causes for urinary incontinence can be temporary or long-term and can vary between men and women. Behavioral habits, underlying medical or physical problems, aging, and the consumption of certain food, drinks, or medication can all cause incontinence.

Common temporary causes of urinary incontinence include:

  • A urinary tract infection (UTI) – A UTI can irritate your bladder
  • Pregnancy - When the uterus places extra pressure on your bladder
  • Constipation - Hard, compacted stool can stress nerves and cause urinary leakage
  • Drinking alcohol or caffeine – These two beverages are diuretics and can temporarily increase the frequency and urgency of urination
  • Some foods - Including spicy, sugary, and highly acidic foods
  • Medications – Some antidepressants, blood pressure medication, and sedatives

Incontinence caused by temporary conditions will usually stop once the issue or dietary change is addressed.

Long-term or chronic urinary incontinence may be caused by:

  • Pregnancy, especially ending in a vaginal delivery, can damage and weaken muscles needed for bladder control
  • Menopause can also cause incontinence because of rapidly changing hormone levels and their effect on the bladder and urethra
  • Neurological issues like multiple sclerosis (MS), a stroke, or a spinal injury, all of which can disrupt nerve signals involved in bladder control
  • Obstruction along the urinary tract, caused by a tumor or urinary stone, can result in urine leakage
  • Diabetes, pelvic floor disorders, and cancer can all cause forms of urinary incontinence

Signs & Symptoms of Urinary Incontinence


Symptoms of urinary incontinence may vary, but it is typically characterized by a new inability to hold in urine. Symptoms may include:

  • Leaking urine in new circumstances, such as when laughing or working out
  • Sudden urges to urinate
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • The need to urinate disrupts normal activities, such as work or sleeping

When to see a doctor

If urinary incontinence is affecting your quality of life or restricting your daily activities, you should discuss it with your doctor. It’s important to seek medical attention regarding urinary incontinence as it may point to an underlying medical condition.

Risk Factors for Urinary Incontinence

Risk Factors

Some factors can cause or increase your risk of urinary incontinence. While incontinence can happen to anyone, it is more likely in certain people. Risk factors for urinary incontinence include:

  • Age: Urinary incontinence becomes more common as you get older and is very common in those 80 and over
  • Gender: Urinary incontinence is more common in women than in men. This is largely in part because of pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese can put additional stress on the bladder, resulting in an increased risk of urine leakage
  • Family history: If others in your family experience incontinence, especially urge incontinence, there may be a genetic link to the condition



While urinary incontinence isn’t always preventable, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk, including:

  • Practicing pelvic floor exercises
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • Eating more fiber, which can prevent constipation
  • Emptying your bladder regularly and before physical activity
Get Care

Get Urinary Incontinence Care at NewYork-Presbyterian

Our doctors offer comprehensive treatment for urinary incontinence and its underlying causes. The specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian are skilled in developing individualized treatment plans for each patient’s lifestyle and needs. Contact us today to make an appointment.