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The Difference between Overactive Bladder and Urinary Incontinence

It can be awkward when the body does not function the way it's supposed to, regardless of age. Urinary difficulties and leakages can be especially awkward because they can be visible.

Overactive bladder and urinary incontinence are two common problems; they both can come with age, but they also can affect any person. While many products address incontinence and other urinary issues, understanding the differences between them can help people get through the difficulties.

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What is urinary incontinence?

Urinary incontinence (UI) simply is the involuntary leakage of urine. The leakage occurs because control over the urinary sphincter is less than normal or has vanished. Roughly a quarter to a third of adults in the United States have some degree of UI.

UI can occur to any age person, although it is more likely the older you get. UI is a symptom of something wrong, rather than a disease. It can be caused by many factors, including the way you live, what you eat and drink, as well as medical conditions or physical problems you may suffer from.

Certain foods and liquids can cause an increase in the amount of urine and therefore the pressure to urinate. Alcohol, caffeine, chili peppers, citrus fruits, and some heart medications (as well as other items) act as diuretics.

UI can also be connected to several conditions, not all of which are signs of poor health. Pregnancy can cause women to have UI because of hormonal changes and the weight of the fetus. Childbirth can weaken bladder muscles. Hysterectomies in women and prostate enlargement and cancer in men can lead to UI. Obesity can increase the pressure on bladder muscles and weaken them.

What are different types of urinary incontinence?

Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) causes urine to leak out when pressure suddenly forces the sphincter muscles to open.

In mild cases, sudden forceful activities can cause the SUI. Exercise, sneezing, coughing, or laughing may all be implicated. If the SUI is more severe, even bending over or walking can cause it. SUI may cause only a few drops to leak out, but it may also cause enough to wet clothing. Women are more prone to SUI than men.

Overflow incontinence happens when the body makes more urine than the bladder can hold, sometimes because the bladder is already full. The bladder then leaks. Overflow incontinence can produce frequent urination of small amounts of urine, or "dribbling," producing a constant drip. Overflow incontinence is common in men who have received prostate surgery or suffer prostate problems.

The third type of urinary incontinence is overactive bladder incontinence (OAB).

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What is OAB?

Overactive bladder is not a disease but consists of a number of symptoms. It's marked mainly by sudden uncontrollable urges to urinate. Leakage can occur, making OAB a form of incontinence. Many people with OAB also have to go to the bathroom many times both night and day.

OAB affects around 33 million people in the U.S. It can affect work performance and personal relationships, as well as prevent you from having a good night's sleep.

Men with prostate problems and women after menopause are most likely to have OAB. Conditions like Parkinson's, stroke, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis can also lead to OAB.

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How is urinary incontinence treated?

If you have stress incontinence, one of the major treatments is something you can do yourself--Kegel exercises. In these exercises, you strengthen the muscles of your pelvic floor, which support many of your organs. Kegel exercises are recommended for women after childbirth or pregnancy.

Kegels work the muscles you use to stop the flow of urine while urinating (although don't stop urinating intentionally frequently). Learning to do them regularly will help reduce the incontinence.

Training the bladder is a treatment especially effective for OAB. Delaying going to the bathroom can help, as can double urination, and setting a timetable for going also has had success in gaining control over the bladder.

Medications and devices may be prescribed by your physician if other techniques do not work, and surgery may be an option in some cases.

Losing weight will help reduce pressure on the bladder; weight loss will also help with stress incontinence and OAB. Absorbent pads worn under the underwear can help avoid the embarrassment that comes with incontinence.

Drinking enough liquid — especially water — during the day also may help. If you don't consume enough water, the concentrated urine can irritate your bladder, and that increases the urge to go. Avoiding the foods that can cause bladder irritation can also help.

Are there really differences?

There are some differences between urinary incontinence and overactive bladder. OAB is a form of urinary incontinence but presents itself differently. OAB can generally be effectively addressed by bladder training, although the Kegel exercises and weight-loss probably won't hurt in either case.

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