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Incontinence: A Woman's Little Secret

If you think urinary incontinence only affects older women, think again. Bladder control issues affect younger, active women, too -- are you one of them?
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WebMD Feature

Often, it starts after the baby's born: You head to aerobics class, ready to shed those extra pounds, and in the middle of the workout...an accident.

This embarrassing little problem is urinary incontinence, and lots of women -- regardless of age -- are secretly dealing with it. More than 13 million Americans have incontinence, and women are twice as likely to have it as men, according the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. About 25% to 45% of women suffer from urinary incontinence, defined as leakage at least once in the past year. The rates of urinary incontinence increase with age: 20%-30% of young women , 30%-40% of middle-aged women, and up to 50% of older women suffer from urinary incontinence.

"It's embarrassing, and it can really affect your quality of life - your emotional state, body image, sexuality," says Linda Brubaker, MD, MS, professor of female pelvic medicine at Loyal University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Yet many put up with incontinence needlessly, Brubaker tells WebMD. "People don't realize it's a medical condition, and that there's help. Many women think it's normal, part of having children or going into menopause."

Though incontinence is "more common than you might think," it's not normal says Brubaker, who sees teens, and women in their 20s, 30s, or older with this issue. "You don't have to put up with it. There are often simple solutions that work."

4 Types of Urinary Incontinence

When you can't control the release of your urine, you have urinary incontinence. For some the problem can be as minor as the rare dribble, for others as problematic as wetting your clothes. There are four kinds of these plumbing problems, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Stress incontinence is that little leak that happens when you cough, laugh, sneeze -- any motion that stresses or puts too much pressure on the bladder.

    Stress incontinence can result from pregnancy and childbirth, when pelvic muscles and tissues can get stretched and damaged. It can also occur from high-impact sports, as a result of aging, or from being overweight.

  • Urge incontinence aka "overactive bladder," is a bit different - it's the urgent need to go, followed by an involuntary loss of urine -- with anything from a few seconds to a minute's warning. It is thought to be due to spasms of the bladder muscles.

    Conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, or a urinary tract infection can cause urge incontinence.

  • Mixed incontinence means you have more than one type of incontinence, with stress and urge incontinence being the typical mix.

    "I think most women have both types," adds Brubaker. "I don't believe there's as much distinction between the two types as we might think."

  • Overflow incontinence . If you can't empty your bladder every time you go to the bathroom and experience a frequent or constant dribbling of urine, you have overflow incontinence.

    Certain medications can cause this problem, and people with nerve damage from diabetes or men with prostate issues can also experience this type of incontinence. It is due to impaired bladder muscle contractions or bladder obstructions.

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