People who have bladder control problems have trouble stopping the flow of urine from the bladder. They are said to have urinary incontinence. Incontinence is uncontrollable leaking of urine from the bladder. Although urinary incontinence is a common problem, it is never normal.
Incontinence is both a health problem and a social problem.
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Most people with incontinence suffer social embarrassment. Many become depressed and limit their activities away from home, often becoming socially isolated and lonely.
Physical conditions linked to incontinence include infection, skin irritations and infections, falls, fractures, and sleep disturbances.
Many people with incontinence are too embarrassed to talk to their health care provider about it. They "cope" or "just learn to live with it." This is changing gradually as people realize that help is available.
Approximately 15%-30% of elderly people who live at home are affected by urinary incontinence. Another 40% of elderly persons who live in nursing homes are affected. Incontinence is a major reason for people going into nursing homes. However, it is not an inevitable consequence of aging.
Here is a brief description of the urinary system and the process of urination (micturition):
The urinary system is composed of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra.
The kidneys filter water and waste from the blood. They excrete urine, which passes via the ureters to the bladder. The bladder stores urine until you urinate.
The kidneys typically excrete about 1 to 1-1/2 quarts (1000-1500 mL) of urine in 24 hours.
The bladder is a hollow, muscular organ. The bladder wall includes a smooth muscle known as the detrusor muscle. The bladder's size, shape, position, and relation to other organs vary with age and the amount of urine stored.
The urethra is a narrow tube connecting the bladder with the opening when the urine comes out of the body. Surrounding the urethra are sphincter muscles, which partly control release of urine from the bladder and from the body.
Although the bladder is able to hold about 600 mL of urine, the urge to urinate develops once the bladder contains 300 mL. As the bladder starts to stretch, nerves in the bladder and surrounding area send messages to the brain, via the spinal cord, telling it that the bladder is filling. The brain sends back the urge to urinate.
Although you normally make the choice when to urinate, once you decide to do so the nervous system takes over and the process becomes automatic. The detrusor contracts and the sphincters relax to allow urine to flow. When the bladder is empty, the sphincters contract and the detrusor relaxes.
You can stop or hold off urination by contracting (squeezing) the external sphincter, which causes relaxation of the detrusor. Urine is stored, and the urge to urinate is temporarily stopped.
As you continue to produce urine, however, the messages to and from the brain get more urgent, and the urge to urinate becomes even stronger.