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It can be easy to think that you’re the only woman in the world experiencing incontinence when it happens to you. However, this is a common medical problem that you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about having or seeking treatment to improve your quality of life. While it can feel distressing to not have full control of your bladder, know that it’s a problem millions of women around the world share. The best thing you can do is visit your doctor for an accurate diagnosis, including the type or types of urinary incontinence you have. 


Below we explore the definition, causes, and possible treatments for female incontinence.


What is Female Incontinence?

According to Dr. Melissa Conrad Stoppler, a medical contributor to the website Medicine Net, the definition of incontinence in both men and women is experiencing involuntary loss of urine. This can appear as small dribbles or as much urine as you would expel when sitting on the toilet. Although both genders can struggle with incontinence, it’s twice as common in women. The fact that women experience pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause and men do not is the most likely explanation for this.

Other common causes of incontinence in women include having weak or overactive bladder muscles. Nerve damage that makes it difficult to retain urine is another common cause of female incontinence. You will especially notice this if you have neuropathy, a condition common with diabetes and some cancer treatments, or any of these health conditions:


  • Birth defects
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Obesity
  • Other neurological injuries
  • Stroke


Urinary incontinence also becomes more common with aging. It most often presents as unwanted dribbling when you cough, sneeze, or laugh or a sudden and sometimes painful urge to urinate. Some women experience only mild annoyance with incontinence while others have such severe symptoms that it affects their social life. They often stay home instead of going out with friends or family due to fear of embarrassment if they leak or not knowing where to find a public restroom.

group of women chatting at a brewery

Different Types of Urinary Incontinence in Women


Female urinary incontinence falls into five categories. The first is functional incontinence. This affects people with medical issues that prevent them from communicating, moving, or thinking to such a degree that they may not be able to reach a toilet on time or at all. Arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and paralysis are just three common examples.


Overactive bladder is the second type of female incontinence. Women with this issue have defective nerves that send messages from the bladder to the brain at inappropriate times. This causes the bladder muscles to begin contracting without any warning. The diagnosis for overactive bladder typically includes urinating eight or more times during the day and waking at night to urinate as well. Women with this form of urinary incontinence typically experience urgency along with leakage or gushing of urine.


Overflow incontinence is the third type of involuntary urine passage in women. This term describes a bladder that doesn’t empty completely when sitting down to use the toilet. Because the bladder doesn’t empty properly, the remaining urine can spill over into your urethra. Diabetic nerve damage is one of the leading causes of overflow incontinence. Fortunately, it’s rare in women.


Stress incontinence occurs when you leak urine while laughing, coughing, or sneezing due to extra pressure on your bladder. Pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause are the most common types of stress incontinence. The trauma of childbirth can injure ligaments that support the bladder as well as the vagina and muscles of the pelvic floor.


The final type of female incontinence is urge incontinence. It means your bladder fills with urine quickly and you need to get to the bathroom right away. The most common cause of urge incontinence is the inappropriate contracting of the bladder muscles. It can also occur during sleep or due to taking certain medications.

confidant woman with sparkler

Female Incontinence is Common and Treatable

According to WebMD, nearly 13 million people suffer from incontinence and women are twice as likely to get it than men but know that it is treatable. We highly recommend seeking treatment where your doctor will likely present several treatment options that can range from home exercises to surgery. If you feel that you don’t fully understand your diagnosis or treatment options, don’t hesitate to speak up and ask for clarification.


All of our physicians are highly trained in treating incontinence and we’re happy to be here as a resource for you. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. 


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Dr. Pettit, Dr. Emeruwa, Dr. Bryson, and the entire staff of Bellingham Urology Group pledge compassion and a thorough commitment to the well-being of each and every patient. In fact, patients know us for that. We pride ourselves on delivering the highest standard of care and on making each office visit, from start to finish, as pleasant, comforting, and friendly as possible.

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