What is incontinence?

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By Michelle Christiansen, MS, PA

Incontinence is the loss of bladder and/or bowel control. It is not a disease or a syndrome, but the result of certain medical conditions and lifestyle choices. It causes a great deal of distress and embarrassment for the individual as well as significant costs. It is a problem that affects young and old, men and women, everywhere in the world. Although it is common, there is universal agreement that incontinence is not a normal part of aging.

There are many types of incontinence and symptoms can be anywhere from mild such as an occasional, slight loss of urine to very severe with a complete loss of control of both bladder and bowel. Most people’s symptoms fall somewhere in between. These symptoms can have many different causes.

Most bladder control problems happen when the muscles are too weak or overactive.  When the muscles that keep the bladder closed are weak, accidents may occur when someone sneezes, laughs or lifts a heavy object. This is stress incontinence. When the bladder muscles become too active (overactive), someone may feel a strong urge to go to the bathroom when they have little urine in the bladder. This is urge incontinence or overactive bladder. There are other causes of incontinence, such as:

Mixed incontinence is a combination of stress and urge incontinence. Many older people, especially women, have this type of incontinence.

Functional incontinence is when individuals can hold their urge to urinate but cannot get to the toilet by themselves.

Overflow incontinence is a constant leakage of a small amount of urine because the bladder never empties completely.

Transient incontinence is a temporary form of incontinence that goes away once the cause is treated. Illness is a common cause of transient incontinence.

Fecal incontinence is the loss of control of bowel movements. It can range from an occasional leakage of a small amount of stool to complete loss of bowel control. Constipation and diarrhea can cause fecal incontinence.

The key to understanding these causes and gaining control is education. Recognizing the warning signs is another step in determining the best way to treat and manage incontinence. Yes, manage incontinence. Despite many myths and misconceptions, incontinence can be managed. Treatment depends on the type of problem one has and what best fits one’s lifestyle. It may include simple exercises, medicines, special devices or procedures prescribed by your doctor, or surgery. It is important to know that with all of the options today, any individual suffering can live a long, happy and healthy life.

About the author:

Michelle Christiansen MS, PA, is the Vice President of Clinical Sales & Marketing- Acute/Post Acute, in the Personal Care Division at Medline Industries, Inc.

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