What Is Incontinence?

When you think about what causes incontinence, the first thing that probably comes to mind is an older adult who can no longer control their bladder or bowel. But urinary and faecal incontinence can affect people of all ages, and it's not just a "dirty old man" problem. In fact, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), over 15 million Americans have this issue on any given day.

Incontinence refers to a problem with your body's ability to control when it goes pee or poop. To understand more about incontinence, you need to know a bit about how the urinary system and the digestive system work.

Your urinary system is made up of your kidneys, bladder, ureters (tubes that carry urine from your kidneys to your bladder), and your urethra (the tube that carries urine from your bladder out of your body). Your digestive system is made up of your mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (which includes the colon), rectum and anus. It works a lot like an assembly line: The mouth receives food. Then it goes down into the oesophagus, where it goes into the stomach. It then passes through the small intestine until it enters the large intestine. The large intestine has a valve that opens only slightly to let food go from the large intestine into the rectum. There it empties into the anus.

When you have incontinence, your body cannot relax properly ( tense normally ) as it moves through these two systems. The muscles or sphincters that close off your body's airways and digestive system cannot relax completely or on time, and so urine and poo leak out of your body and possibly into your underwear, bedding or other objects.

Symptoms can range from a little bit of pee escaping when you sneeze or laugh to uncontrollable leaking that requires clothes for absorbency. It can be not very comfortable.

So why does it happen? There are lots of reasons for incontinence. Some people are born with weak muscles and sphincters, and some develop these problems over time because of diseases like diabetes. Three out of four people with diabetes will have a problem with incontinence at some point in their lives. Incontinence is also more common in men than women and adults over age 65.

But sometimes incontinence has nothing to do with muscles or sphincters -- it can happen when you have bladder or gastrointestinal infections. It can also be caused by an injury, surgery, a stroke or a brain injury like a concussion. You might have stopped breathing for too long – in this case. Scar tissue could block your urethra and keep urine from leaving your body.

Incontinence is not always something that you cannot control – there are plenty of other treatments to help people with incontinence.

Part 2: The causes of incontinence

The causes of incontinence can be divided by which systems are affected. There are two main types of incontinence. The bladders and muscles cause urinary incontinence in your urinary system not working correctly. Gastrointestinal (GI) incontinence is caused by your bladder or bowels not relaxing perfectly as it moves through your digestive tract.

There are also a few rarer types. Septic shock is a life-threatening condition caused by an infection in the blood. This happens when the kidneys can't keep up with your body's need for oxygen and nutrients. Your body begins to break down muscle, fat and protein (which provide energy to the body), so no matter how hard you try, it can't get enough oxygen or nutrition to keep you alive. Septic shock can happen quickly or spread over several days as your body tries to fight off the infection.

Meniere's disease is a disorder that affects the inner ear. The problem is not with hearing but with balance, pressure and deep-sea rocking sounds (called fluctuating tinnitus) that can make it hard to sleep at night. This disorder often develops after age 50, but it can also show up in younger people. Meniere's disease can be treated by taking medicine to block the production of an enzyme that causes a build-up of fluid in the inner ear (which leads to tinnitus).

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