Common Causes of Bladder Problems in Women

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The bladder is one of those organs you don't pay much attention to—until it doesn't work like it should. The bladder stores urine, with various muscles holding it in until your brain signals that it's time to get rid of it. Like any system, though, things can go wrong. Here's what you need to know about three common bladder problems that affect women.


1. Urinary Incontinence

Millions of women suffer from urinary incontinence, or the accidental loss of urine. There are different kinds of incontinence: stress, urge and overflow. The most common type is stress. With stress incontinence, you might leak urine when you cough, laugh, exercise or lift heavy objects. Urge incontinence is where you have the urge to go and can’t hold your urine until you reach the bathroom. Overflow incontinence is when your bladder leaks or dribbles because it doesn’t empty properly. This can happen to women, but it's more common in men. If you have one or more of these types of urinary incontinence, you have what's called mixed incontinence. 

Causes of urinary incontinence include:

  • Pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnancy and delivery can stretch the pelvic muscles. When those muscles are stretched, the bladder can sag. The opening of your urethra also can stretch. 
  • Menopause. Estrogen helps keep the tissues around the bladder and urethra healthy. When you go through menopause, you produce less estrogen. That can weaken your bladder. 
  • Nerve damage. The brain sends signals to the nerves in your bladder when it's full. Nerve damage can interrupt that signal. Your brain might not be able to tell you when you need to empty your bladder. Various diseases can cause nerve damage. Examples are diabetes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and stroke. Surgery or trauma to your back or pelvis also can damage nerves that control your bladder. 
  • Medications. Some medicines can cause the bladder muscles to relax and keep them from signaling the brain that the bladder is full. These include sleeping aids, narcotics, and antidepressants. If you don’t know your bladder is full, it can overflow and leak. Diuretics also can cause incontinence. That's because they drain fluids from elsewhere in the body and send them to the bladder, which fills quickly.
  • Alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics. They cause the bladder to fill quickly, and you can more easily lose control. 
  • Being overweight. Carrying extra weight puts pressure on the bladder. This can cause stress incontinence. 
  • Exercise. Women can experience leakage during strenuous sporting activities, especially those that involve jumping and running. 

2. Interstitial Cystitis 

Another common bladder problem in women is interstitial cystitis. This is when the bladder becomes inflamed and irritated. The inflammation can make the walls of the bladder stiff. If that happens, it can't expand when it fills with urine. Also, when you do go, the volume isn't as much as normal because your bladder can’t hold much urine. 

The exact cause of interstitial cystitis is not known. But, doctors think the causes are similar to what can cause incontinence: damage to the bladder caused by trauma (such as pelvic surgery), autoimmune disorders, infections, and trauma to the spinal cord. 

3. Urinary Tract Infections

Many women have these infections, called UTIs. They can be painful. They also can cause bladder control issues. Germs can get in the urinary tract and cause infections in various ways:

  • Wiping from back to front after a bowel movement. The toilet tissues carry bacteria from the stool forward to the opening of the urethra, which is in the front of the vagina.
  • Having sex can spread germs from the vagina into the urethra. Using a diaphragm or spermicides can also cause UTIs.
  • Waiting too long to empty your bladder. Holding urine can allow more germs to grow inside. 

Other causes of UTIs include menopause, diabetes, and kidney stones or other obstructions that make it hard to empty your bladder completely when you go.

When to See Your Doctor

If you have any of these problems and they are affecting your quality of life, talk with your doctor. Depending on what’s causing the problem, your doctor can help you find a solution. Bladder problems can be treated with lifestyle changes, medicine, exercises, and surgery in various combinations.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 4

  1. Interstitial Cystitis: A Bladder Problem, American Family Physician. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/1001/p1212.html

  2. What causes bladder control problems, NIDDK. http://www.kidney.niddk.nih.gov/KUDiseases/pubs/bcw_ez/index.aspx

  3. Loss of Bladder Control, Urinary Incontinence. http://www.urologyhealth.org/_media/_pdf/Urinary%20Incontinence%20Brochure%202009.pdf

  4. Causes of IC, Interstitial Cystitis Association. http://www.ichelp.org/page.aspx?pid=916 

  5. Urinary tract infection fact sheet, womenshealth.gov. http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/urinary-tract-infection.html

  6. The Urinary Tract and How It Works, National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/yoururinary/

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