Overactive Bladder

Topic Overview

What is overactive bladder?

With overactive bladder, you have many strong, sudden urges to urinate during the day and night. You can get these urges even when you have only a little bit of urine in your bladder. You may not be able to hold your urine until you get to the bathroom. This can lead to urine leakage, called incontinence.

Overactive bladder is very common in older adults. Both men and women can have it, but it's more common in women.

Overactive bladder is a kind of urge incontinence. But not everyone with overactive bladder leaks urine.

Even without incontinence, overactive bladder can make it hard to do the things you enjoy. The need to drop everything and race to the bathroom can disrupt your life. And if you leak, even if it's only a little bit, it can be embarrassing.

Overactive bladder can cause other problems too. Hurrying to the bathroom can lead to falls and broken bones, especially in women who have gone through menopause.1 That's because older women are more likely to have brittle bones that break easily. In both men and women, overactive bladder can cause sleeping problems, depression, and urinary tract infections.

Many people are too shy to talk about their bladder problems. But overactive bladder can get better with treatment. Don't be afraid to talk with your doctor about how to control your overactive bladder.

What causes overactive bladder?

Overactive bladder is caused by an overactive muscle in the bladder that pushes urine out. There are many things that can make this muscle overactive. It can be caused by a bladder infection, stress, or another medical problem. Some brain problems, such as Parkinson’s disease or a stroke, can also lead to overactive bladder. But in many cases, doctors don't know what causes it.

Some medicines can cause overactive bladder. Talk with your doctor about the medicines you're taking to find out if they could affect your bladder. But don't stop taking your medicine without talking to your doctor first.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of overactive bladder are:

  • An urgent need to urinate.
  • The need to urinate often, 8 or more times a day.1
  • Waking up to urinate 2 or more times a night.
  • The need to urinate even if you have just gone to the bathroom.
  • Taking many trips to the bathroom only to urinate just a little bit each time.
  • Leaking urine when you have the urge to urinate.

You may have some or all of these symptoms.

How is overactive bladder diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam. He or she will ask what kinds of fluids you drink and how much. Your doctor will also want to know how often you urinate, how much, and if you leak. It may help to write down these things for 3 or 4 days before you see your doctor.

Your doctor probably will also do a few tests, such as:

You may have more tests if your doctor thinks your symptoms could be caused by other problems, such as diabetes or prostate disease.

How is it treated?

The first step in treatment will be to try some things at home, such as urinating at scheduled times. Your doctor may ask you to urinate every 2 hours during the day even if you don't have the urge. This is called bladder retraining. It can help you regain control.

You can also do special exercises called Kegels to make your pelvic muscles stronger. These muscles control the flow of urine. Doing these exercises can improve some bladder problems. It may help to work with a physical therapist who has special training in pelvic muscle exercises.

There are other changes you can make that can help:

  • Cut back on caffeine drinks, such as coffee, tea, and sodas.
  • If it bothers you to get up at night to urinate, cut down on fluids before bed. But don't cut down on fluids at other times of the day. You need them to stay healthy.
  • When you go to the bathroom, urinate as much as you can. Then relax for a few seconds and try again. Practice this each time you urinate.
  • At night, if you have trouble getting to the toilet in time, clear a path from your bed to the bathroom. Or you could put a portable toilet by your bed.

If you're leaking urine, your doctor may give you medicine to treat incontinence. But doctors usually prescribe medicine only when bladder training and exercises don't work.

Surgery is not usually done for overactive bladder.

References

Citations

  1. Ouslander JG (2004). Management of overactive bladder. New England Journal of Medicine, 350(8): 786–799.

Other Works Consulted

  • Lentz GM (2007). Physiology of micturition, diagnosis of voiding dysfunction, and incontinence: Surgical and nonsurgical treatment. In VL Katz et al., eds., Comprehensive Gynecology, 5th ed., pp. 537–568. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.

Credits

Author Sandy Jocoy, RN
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Avery L. Seifert, MD - Urology
Last Updated September 17, 2008

Last Updated: September 17, 2008

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