Urinary incontinence in women is a common medical condition and many are too embarrassed or shy to talk about. Despite the stigma, loss of bladder control plagues women of all ages. It’s most often associated with old age and post parting, but other health complications can also trigger it.
In most cases, incontinence isn’t a life-threatening ailment. However, it can negatively impact a woman’s quality of life. Women are twice as likely to suffer from this debilitating problem as men. There are many potential causes of urinary incontinence in women. Here are some of the most common.
Pregnancy & Childbirth
Healthcare professionals estimate that about 40 percent of all women experience urinary incontinence during pregnancy. During and after childbirth, women are at a high risk of experiencing stress incontinence. This form of incontinence refers to accidental leakage due to sudden pressure on the bladder, with laugh, cough, or exercise.
As babies develop during pregnancy, the uterus expands significantly. This process leads to excess pressure on the bladder and urethra. All it takes is one cough, laugh, or intense physical motion to lose control.
Incontinence in women during pregnancy can also stem from hormonal changes. Fluctuations and the general increase in progesterone levels weaken the pelvic floor. One job of progesterone during pregnancy is to loosen ligaments and joints, making room for the womb. But, the hormone is also capable of weakening the pelvic muscles that impact urine control.
Giving birth can result in urinary incontinence in women that lasts for several weeks. Vaginal delivery, in particular, is known to stretch and weaken the pelvic floor muscles. These muscles act as a sling to support the pelvic organs, including the bladder. When damaged during childbirth, some women might experience pelvic organ prolapse and continued incontinence issues.
Childbirth may also damage the nerves that communicate with the bladder. Generally, incontinence troubles resolve themselves six weeks or so after delivery. But in some women, they can be the start of lifelong bladder control battles.
- 30% of women will continue to suffer from urinary incontinence as a result of a pregnancy.
Urinary incontinence is more common in older women. Roughly 30 percent of all women between the ages of 45 and 64 experience it. For women 65 and older, that figure jumps up to about 50 percent.
Contrary to popular belief, urinary incontinence in women is not a normal part of getting older. It’s a medical condition that’s likely a byproduct of another underlying health concern. For older women, the potential causes of incontinence widen.
In many instances, the culprit is pelvic floor atrophy. The effects of previous pregnancy and childbirth can also come into play. Several neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease, might be to blame for urinary incontinence in women as well.
In addition to hot flashes, night sweats, and mood changes, urinary incontinence is a common complaint during menopause. During this life stage, the body stops producing estrogen and progesterone. Researchers believe that these lower estrogen and progesterone levels weaken the urethra and the pelvic floor muscles.
Less estrogen also makes vaginal tissue less elastic while thinning the lining of the urethra. All of these seemingly minor changes add up. Plus, additional biological changes like weight gain and pelvic organ prolapse can occur after menopause. These events make urinary incontinence in women much more likely during and after menopause.
Many women will start to experience incontinence during perimenopause when hormonal changes first begin. But, the brunt of bladder control issues happens during menopause and continues long after. Women can experience all forms of urinary incontinence, including frequent stress accidents, sudden urges to urinate, and overactive bladder.
Urinary incontinence in women is far more common than most think. That said, it doesn’t have to affect your life. Problems with bladder control are usually very treatable with the right care.
Dr. Tahery is a urogynecologist in Los Angeles. His gynecology and urology knowledge provides a deeper understanding of urinary incontinence in women and other pelvic floor issues.