Urge Incontinence

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on June 20, 2022
7 min read

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If you have a sudden need to urinate - and you involuntarily leak wherever and whenever - you may have urge incontinence. The condition isn't a disease, but it may be a sign that there is an underlying problem.

While urge incontinence is sometimes referred to as "overactive bladder," that condition is slightly different; people with an overactive bladder feel an urge to urinate but don't necessarily leak urine.

Urge incontinence is caused by abnormal bladder contractions. Normally, strong muscles called sphincters control the flow of urine from the bladder. With urge incontinence, the muscles of an "overactive" bladder contract with enough force to override the sphincter muscles of the urethra, which is the tube that takes urine out of the body.

The bladder may experience abnormal contractions for the following reasons:

In many cases, the cause of urge incontinence cannot be identified.

The main symptom of urge incontinence is the sudden urge to urinate and the involuntary loss of urine at inappropriate times. For instance, you may leak urine in public or while you are sleeping.

People at greater risk for urge incontinence include:

  • Older adults
  • Women who have had a C-section or other pelvic surgery
  • People who are obese
  • Men who have had prostate surgery or prostate conditions, such as enlarged prostate or prostatitis
  • People who have nerve damage from conditions such as diabetes, stroke, or injury
  • People with certain cancers, including the bladder and prostate
  • People who are suffering from urinary tract infections

Being constipated may also put you at risk for urge incontinence.

Urge incontinence can be treated with a variety of behavioral treatments, medications, electrical stimulation, or with surgery. Sometimes a combination of treatments is used.

One way of dealing with urge incontinence is to simply change some of your behaviors. For instance, if you can anticipate when your bladder is overactive and may be contracting abnormally, you can take action to avoid any mishaps or urine leakage.

Here are some techniques that may be helpful:

  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a practice that helps you learn how your body normally behaves. When you do, you will know when it is not functioning properly. In the case of urge incontinence, biofeedback can help you recognize when your bladder is overactive.

Two biofeedback techniques are timed voiding and bladder training. To practice timed voiding, you use a chart to record the times that you urinate and when you leak urine. This will give you an idea of your leakage "patterns." Then you can avoid leaking in the future by going to the bathroom at those times.

With bladder training, you "stretch out" the intervals at which you go to the bathroom. You do this by waiting a little longer before you go. For instance, to start, you can plan to go to the bathroom once an hour. You follow this pattern for a period of time, and then you change the schedule so that you are going to the bathroom every 90 minutes. Then eventually, you lengthen the interval to every two hours, and so on, until you are up to three or four hours between bathroom visits.

  • Kegel exercises:Kegel exercises, also called pelvic floor exercises, help strengthen the muscles that support the bladder, uterus, and bowels. By strengthening these muscles, you can reduce or prevent problems such as leaking urine.

To do Kegel exercises, pretend you are trying to stop the flow of urine (although not when you are urinating, as this may hurt the bladder muscle) or trying not to pass gas. When you do this, you are contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor. While doing these exercises, try not to move your leg, buttock, or abdominal muscles. In fact, no one should be able to tell that you are doing Kegel exercises.

Kegel exercises should be done every day, five sets a day. Each time you contract the muscles of the pelvic floor, hold for a slow count of five and then relax. Repeat this 10 times for one set of Kegels.

  • Weighted cones: Another technique that can strengthen the pelvis and bladder muscles is the use of weighted cones. You insert the tampon-shaped cone into the vagina and hold it there by contracting your pelvic muscles. As you do this exercise and these muscles strengthen, the weight of the cone is gradually increased. This will improve your ability to hold urine until you get to a bathroom.
  • Electrical Stimulation: electrical stimulation is FDA approved for the treatment of SUI. It uses low-grade electrical current to stimulate weak or inactive pelvic muscles to contract. . Regular electrical stimulation sessions can supplement or augment your pelvic muscle exercise regime. Additionally, a coin-sized device called a tibial neurostimulator as been approved that can be implanted in the lower leg and reduce symptoms

Other behavioral tips for preventing urge incontinence include:

  • going to the bathroom on a regular basis, especially before physical activity
  • avoiding drinking caffeine or a lot of fluids before activities
  • not drinking any fluids right before you go to bed
  • avoiding lifting heavy objects
  • losing weight

If behavioral modifications such as timed voiding and bladder training do not improve the symptoms of urge incontinence, your doctor may decide to try various medical or surgical treatments. These methods have the same goal -- relief of the symptoms and inconvenience of urge incontinence.

Medical treatments for urge incontinence include:

Oxytrol for women is the only drug available over the counter.

Your health care provider may also recommend other medications that may help control bladder spasms. They include hyoscyamine (Anaspaz, Cystospaz, Hyosol, Hyospaz, Levbid, Levsin) or dicyclomine (Antispas, Bentyl, Byclomine, Di-Spaz, Dibent, Or-Tyl, Spasmoject).

If behavioral treatments and medications do not help, other options for treatment include:

The drug Botox injected into the bladder muscle causes the bladder to relax, increasing its storage capacity and reducing episodes of leakage. It can be used in adults that do not respond to or cannot use other medications that treat overactive bladder.

Another drug treatment that may be helpful for some women is hormone therapy, which uses estrogen alone or in combination with progesterone. However, evidence of benefit for urge incontinence has been mixed. In addition, because of the possible risks of hormone therapy -- including a potential increased risk of blood clots and breast cancer -- you should discuss this therapy with your doctor.

  • Electrical stimulation:
    • Sacral nerve stimulation: An electronic device is implanted in the back through a minimally invasive procedure. The device delivers an electric signal to the sacral nerve. This signal helps to control the bladder muscles and decrease the number of abnormal contractions.
    • Percutaneous Tibial Nerve Stimulation: An electric current is applied to the tibial nerve in the region of the patient's ankle. This nerve is thought to affect bladder contraction.
    • Another technique is to use small electrodes placed in either the vagina or the rectum. The electrodes produce electric pulses that cause contraction of the muscles of the pelvis and the urethra. This strengthens these muscles to help reduce the incidence of urge incontinence.
  • Surgery. Surgical procedures for urge incontinence include:
    • increasing the storage capacity of the bladder
    • limiting nerve impulses to the control muscles
    • diverting the flow of urine