What Is Urinary Incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is the leakage of urine at inappropriate times. With incontinence, you may have trouble starting the urine stream or holding urine when you feel a strong urge to go.
Urinary incontinence involves the muscles of the pelvic floor. These muscles attach to the bottom of the pelvic bones and run front to back, forming a bowl-like structure that lifts to support the internal organs and controls the sphincter muscles. The pelvic-floor muscles also help support the low back, stabilize the pelvic bones, and help with sexual function. Women are more likely than men to have urinary incontinence, but men can have it, too.
There are different types of incontinence:
Stress incontinence – small amounts of urine leak when there is increased pressure on the bladder.
Urge incontinence – your bladder muscle goes into spasm, and, if the spasm is severe enough, medium to large amounts of urine may leak; this might happen only occasionally or as often as every 15 to 20 minutes.
Mixed incontinence – you have both stress and urge incontinence.
Functional incontinence – urine leaks when you can’t get to the bathroom in time.
Stress incontinence usually results from weakness and lack of support in the pelvic-floor muscles. It can happen with laughing, sneezing, or coughing or with exercise or activities such as lifting. Women with stress incontinence often have “underactive” pelvic floor muscles as a result of:
Pregnancy and childbirth, which can put stress or pressure on the bladder and possibly cause trauma to the pelvic-floor muscles
Other injury or trauma
Surgery in the vagina or rectum
Episiotomy (an incision in the tissues between the vaginal opening and anus during childbirth)
Lack of exercise and lack of use
After delivery, women also can have fecal incontinence (leakage of stool) if there was tearing of the vaginal opening that extends to the anal sphincter.
With urge incontinence, you may or may not have pelvic-floor muscle weakness or pelvic muscle tension or spasm.
In functional incontinence, the cause isn’t related directly to the bladder or pelvic-floor muscles:
Joint pain or muscle weakness that cause you to move with difficulty
Confusion, dementia, or delirium
Environmental barriers, such as the bathroom being too far away, the use of a walker that slows you down, or too many obstacles that you have to walk around to get to the bathroom
Psychological problems such as depression or anger
You can also have an “overactive bladder” where your bladder empties frequently throughout the day (more than every 3 or 4 hours during the day) or makes you get up more than once to urinate at night. There is a variety of causes, such as sensitivities to certain foods or beverages.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your physical therapist will perform an examination to identify the causes of your urinary incontinence. Your therapist also will determine whether you should be referred to a physician for additional tests.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Based on the evaluation results, your physical therapist will individualize treatments to strengthen your pelvic-floor muscles and improve their function. Your physical therapist can help you:
Gain control over your symptoms.
Reduce the need for pads and special undergarments, incontinence medications, and possibly surgery.
Strengthen Your Muscles and Make Them Work Better for You
Your physical therapist will show you how to “find” the right muscles and use them correctly. Using pelvic-floor exercises, the therapist will help you strength those muscles so that you can better control your bladder.
Your physical therapist will:
Show you how to “find” the right muscles and use them correctly.
Use pelvic-floor exercises to help you strengthen your muscles so that you can better control your bladder. Pelvic-floor exercises include “kegels,” in which you gently squeeze the sphincter muscles and squeeze the buttocks, thighs, and stomach muscles.
Instruct you in exercises to stretch and strengthen other important muscles, so that they can support proper bladder function.
Depending on your symptoms and level of discomfort, your physical therapist may decide to use biofeedback to make you aware of how your pelvic-floor muscles work and how you can control them better. Electrodes attached vaginally or rectally will provide measurements of muscle activity and display them on a monitor, and the therapist will work with you to help you understand and change those readings. The therapist also may use electrical stimulation to improve your awareness of your muscles and increase muscle strength.
Remember: Knowledge Is Power
Your physical therapist can provide information about:
Diet and nutrition to avoid food and drinks that may irritate the bladder.
Changing behaviors that make symptoms worse.
Ways to decrease urinary urge and frequency.