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What Causes Urinary Incontinence?

Several muscles and nerves have to work right for you to have normal bladder control.10

When the system is working normally, your body stores urine in the bladder, which is a balloon-like organ at the bottom of the pelvis.  The bladder is connected to the urethra, which is the tube that drains urine from your body.  A small ring-like muscle called the urethral sphincter stops urine from leaking by staying closed until you’re ready to go to the bathroom.1, 3,10

When your bladder is full, the receptors and nerves send signals to your brain and you will have an urge to urinate.  Then the bladder muscles squeeze to push the urine out through your urethra.  The sphincters open up and the bladder contracts.3,10

If the sphincter or other muscles around the bladder are weakened or otherwise working incorrectly, urine can leak.  There are many things that can interfere with the urinary system working correctly.  They include diseases like diabetes (a condition where blood sugar is too high), stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.  Surgery, menopause and obesity can also cause incontinence.  There are many medicines that can cause you to lose bladder control or make incontinence worse: diuretics, sedatives, narcotics, antidepressants, antihistamines, calcium channel-blockers and alpha-blockers.2, 3,10,11

Urinary incontinence is more common in women than in men.  Pregnancy, childbirth and hormonal changes that come with aging can all make incontinence more likely.3  In men, the most common cause of incontinence is prostate surgery.2  For both men and women, injury to the nervous system, birth defects, and physiological problems associated with aging can cause incontinence.3,10,11

The older you are, the more likely you may experience incontinence.  It is a medical problem and your doctor can help you find a solution, often without surgery.3, 6,10,11

Incontinence can be a problem for children too.  Preschoolers by the age of 4 -6 years old should be completely trained during the day with occasional accidents.  Normal school age children should have normal daytime continence with few exceptions.  If this is not happening medical attention should be sought.  There are medical conditions that could be triggering this.  These include urinary tract infections, diabetes, kidney problems, nerve problems, constipation, obstructive sleep apnea (a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep, often because of inflamed or enlarged tonsils), obesity or a structural problem in the urinary tract. 7,10,11

There are three forms of urinary incontinence: 2, 3, 6,10,11

  • Stress incontinence is when an action like coughing, sneezing or lifting causes you to leak urine.  It happens because these activities put extra pressure on the muscles around your bladder. 
  • Urge incontinence (overactive bladder) is a urine leak that happens after you feel an overwhelming urge to urinate that cannot be stopped.  This is usually the result of an overactive bladder.
  • Overflow incontinence happens when the bladder is full.  You may experience constant dribbling and need to go to the bathroom often.  It is rare in women and more common if you are a man and have problems with your prostate.

Please note that this information provided by BARD Medical is not intended to be used in place of a visit, consultation, or advice of a medical professional. Information is as of 12/2014.  Please check references for updated information.


  1. Urology Care Foundation – Neurogenic Bladder Symptoms May 2014
  2. Urology Care Foundation – Loss of Bladder Control/Urinary Incontinence 2014
  3. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC) – Urinary Incontinence in Women September 2013
  4. Cleveland Clinic, Diseases and Conditions – Neurogenic Bladder - Nov 2012
  5. Urology Care Foundation – Neurogenic Bladder Fact Sheet 2014
  6. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC) – Urinary Incontinence in Men June 2012
  7. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC) – Urinary Incontinence in Children June 2012
  8. Urology Care Foundation – Neurogenic Bladder   May 2014
  9. Mayo Clinic - Urinary Incontinence, Treatment and Drugs Aug. 2014
  10. Slack A, Newman D, Wein A, Fast Facts: Bladder Disorders, Health Press, Oxford UK, 2011
  11. Urinary Incontinence , Pat D O’Donnell MD, Mosby Ltd, St Louis, 1997