National Continence Helpline

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What is stress incontinence?

Stress incontinence:

  • is when urine leaks during activities such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, standing up, getting out of the car, doing exercise and heavy lifting.
  • may not happen all the time, but often happen when the person has a full bladder
  • is more common in women but sometimes happens in men after prostate surgery.

People with stress incontinence often feel embarrassed, isolate themselves or cut back on work and social life, especially exercise and leisure activities.

What causes stress incontinence?

Stress incontinence happens when there is a weakening of the pelvic floor muscles and other tissues that support the bladder and the muscles that control urine flow (the urinary sphincter).

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Common causes of stress incontinence are:

  • damage to the pelvic floor muscles and nerves after having a baby
  • prostate surgery
  • illness causing long-term coughing or sneezing, e.g. asthma, allergies
  • being overweight
  • smoking, which can cause frequent coughing
  • some medicines
  • high-impact activities such as running, jumping and weight lifting
  • older age, because of physical changes including weakening of the pelvic floor muscles
  • constipation and straining to open bowels.

Treatment for stress incontinence

People with stress incontinence should see their general practitioner (GP), a continence nurse advisor or a specialist physiotherapist. They may:

  • teach pelvic floor muscle exercises and recommend an ongoing exercise program
  • suggest healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, losing weight or treating a chronic cough
  • suggest bladder training if the person has some other bladder problems, such as urge incontinence
  • talk about how much and when the person should drink during the day and evening. They may also suggest they avoid caffeine and alcohol.

Need more help? Call the National Continence Helpline on 18OO 33 OO 66 and talk to a continence nurse advisor.

Take the Quiz

Question 1

Stress incontinence:

only happens when the person is having a worrying time

is leaking urine without warning during activities

only happens to women

is normal in older people.

Question 2

People with stress incontinence:

should wear a pad 'just in case'

can't empty their bladder

should just ignore it, as it will go away

often feel embarrassed and don't want to go out

Question 3

Stress incontinence can happen because:

the person ignores the need to go to the toilet

of childbirth, prostate surgery or chronic cough

the person wears a pad all the time

the person drinks too much fluid.

Question 4

Treatment for stress incontinence can include:

pelvic floor muscle exercises

bladder training

lifestyle changes

all of the above.

This information is not a substitute for independent professional advice.