What Causes Urge Incontinence?

Medically reviewed by Tyler Walker, MD on March 16, 2016 Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey

Urge incontinence occurs when you have a sudden urge to urinate. In urge incontinence, the bladder contracts when it shouldn’t, causing some urine to leak through the sphincter muscles holding the bladder closed. Other names for this condition... Read More

Urge incontinence occurs when you have a sudden urge to urinate. In urge incontinence, the bladder contracts when it shouldn’t, causing some urine to leak through the sphincter muscles holding the bladder closed. Other names for this condition are:

  • overactive bladder
  • bladder spasms
  • spasmodic bladder
  • irritable bladder
  • detrusor instability

While this is a common issue and can affect anyone, women and older adults are at a higher risk of developing it.

It’s important to remember that urge incontinence isn’t a disease. It’s a symptom of lifestyle or medical issues or physical problems.

Urge incontinence is one piece of the larger framework of urinary incontinence. There are several forms of urinary incontinence, ranging from leaking small amounts of urine to an overactive bladder. Your doctor can diagnose your specific type of incontinence and its cause, and they can provide possible treatment options.

What Causes Urge Incontinence?

In many cases of urge incontinence, a doctor isn’t able to pinpoint an exact cause. However, some potential causes could include:

  • a bladder infection
  • inflammation
  • stones
  • an obstruction of the opening of the bladder
  • an enlarged prostate in men
  • bladder cancer
  • diseases of the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis
  • an injury to the nervous system, such trauma to the spinal cord or a stroke

When Should You See a Doctor?

For many people, urge incontinence is merely an inconvenience that doesn’t require a doctor visit. However, if urge incontinence impedes your daily activities, you may want to visit your doctor to discuss treatment options or other ways to manage your condition.

Treatments are varied. They depend on your unique symptoms and condition. Each person will have a slightly different treatment plan. Your doctor will likely recommend that you try behavioral treatments, such as bladder retraining and Kegel exercises, before suggesting more invasive treatments.

If you have a serious case of urge incontinence, you should seek treatment right away. Your symptoms could be signaling:

  • a bladder infection
  • inflammation
  • an obstruction
  • stones in the bladder or kidney

Some symptoms to watch out for alongside your urge incontinence are pain in the pelvic region, burning or pain with urination, or symptoms that continue for several days.

What Are the Treatment Options for Urge Incontinence?

Most people with urge incontinence can live normally without treatment. However, the condition could affect your daily life. You may want to consider trying some of the many treatment options for urge incontinence.

Some treatments can be self-administered at home. Others require the assistance of your doctor.

Home Remedies

Dietary Changes

Changing the foods you eat can reduce bladder irritation. You should limit your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and other irritating foods that are spicy, acidic, or high in sugar. In addition, try to lose weight if you’re overweight. Adjust your lifestyle habits to be healthier overall.

Kegel Exercises

Kegel exercises are usually the first treatment option for urinary incontinence. The process strengthens the muscles involved in urination, specifically the pelvic floor muscles.

Try contracting the pelvic floor for 5 to 10 seconds, and then rest for the same amount of time. Contracting the pelvic floor is the same as when you stop the flow of urine midstream. If you’re unsure if you’re doing it correctly, try stopping your urine midstream. Doing a Kegel exercise should replicate that sensation of stopping your urine.

Simply concentrating on your pelvic floor region and contracting will activate the correct muscles. Repeat this sequence for as many repetitions as you can, three or more times per day. You can do Kegel exercises at any time and in any location. If overseen by a doctor, you may use Kegel cones, which are weighted cones held in the vagina by contracting the pelvic floor. As your muscles get stronger, you use heavier weights.

One option for pelvic floor strengthening is an electric version of Kegel exercises. Here a doctor will insert a probe into the vaginal or anal openings to send a shock to the pelvic floor muscles. This helps strengthen them. However, it takes several months and many treatments to be effective.

Bladder Retraining

Retraining your bladder can strengthen the muscles involved with urination. One technique involves urinating at only specific, scheduled times each day. You can’t urinate at other times, even if you have the urge to go. At first, you’ll go every hour and then increase the wait time by half-hour intervals until you can make it three to four hours without leakage.

Another technique is to delay urination when the urge strikes. This strengthens your ability to hold urine. You may also try urinating and then going again immediately afterward to learn how to empty the bladder completely.

Lifestyle Changes

Try to eat more fiber to prevent constipation, which can put pressure on the bladder. You should also quit smoking so that you cough less.

You may want to wear an absorbent pad while you do activities that increase leakage.

Medical Treatments

Your doctor can also provide you with a urethra insert or a pessary. These inserts are like small tampons that you can insert into the urethra before specific activities where leakage is likely to occur. They aren’t meant for everyday use. A pessary inserts into the vagina to help hold up the bladder and limit urinary leakage. You can insert it yourself and wear it all day.

Your doctor can provide you with additional treatment options, such as medication or surgery, to help with muscle strength and sphincter functioning. There are many surgical options your doctor can discuss with you.

Collagen Implants

Getting collagen implants involves injections into your urethra wall to help control the leakage of urine due to weak sphincter muscles. This is a relatively simple and effective way to treat urinary incontinence.

Nerve Stimulators

Nerve stimulators are small devices that resemble pacemakers. The device inserts under the skin of the buttocks and hooks up to the sacral nerve. It sends light pulses to the nerve to help control your bladder’s functioning.


A catheter is another at-home option that’s specifically for those who have overflow incontinence. Your doctor will teach you how to insert the catheter, which will help empty your bladder completely when you urinate.

What Complications Are Associated with Urge Incontinence?

Because urge incontinence is normally a chronic condition that doesn’t have serious complications, there are few risks associated with not seeking treatment. As long as you have no other symptoms along with your urge incontinence, such as pain or burning while urinating, there’s little risk.

However, you need to see a doctor if an infection, bladder stones, or inflammation is the cause of your incontinence. Infection could spread to the kidneys or other areas of the body.

Medically reviewed by Tyler Walker, MD on March 16, 2016 Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey

8 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Tyler Walker, MD on March 16, 2016 Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey