Overactive Bladder: Symptoms, Causes & Prevention | Uqora
6 min read | July 03, 24

What is Overactive Bladder?

Medically Reviewed by: Heather Ott

Written by: Sareena Rama

Article summary

Overactive bladder is a urinary health condition that can affect anyone. Symptoms include a sudden urge to urinate, incontinence, and urinary frequency that can disrupt daily life. Luckily, there are treatment options available.

What is Overactive Bladder?

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Overactive bladder (OAB) is a common health concern that affects millions of people in the United States. It's most prevalent in people aged 65 and older, but can still be experienced at a younger age. In fact, up to 33 million adults in the US are affected by OAB, with approximately 30% of males and 40% of females experiencing OAB. However, experts suggest that the actual number may be higher because many individuals have expressed feeling embarrassed and refraining from seeking the help they need(1)

If you’re experiencing OAB, we’re here to tell you that you are not alone in this journey. We’re so glad you found us and we hope this resource is helpful for you on your urinary health journey. 

Those with OAB share that they often face significant disruptions in their daily lives. According to recent research, 39% of women with OAB symptoms report interference with daily activities, and 12% reported they will stay home due to their symptoms. Additionally, 38% reported decreased activity levels. Other common challenges linked to OAB can include disturbed sleep, reduced self-esteem, and feelings of overall declining health (2). Know that if you’re experiencing these challenges, there are ways to mitigate your risk of OAB and various treatment options to get proactive!

So, what is an overactive bladder? Keep reading to learn more about OAB, its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

Up to 33 million adults in the US are affected by overactive bladder

Overactive Bladder Symptoms

So, what is an overactive bladder? Overactive bladder is a condition where individuals feel a sudden urge to urinate(3). Common symptoms of this urinary health concern include: 

  • Sudden urge to urinate(3)
  • Urinary incontinence, leading to bladder leaks(3)
  • Frequent urination occurring eight or more times in a 24-hour period(3) (Medically, a normal urinary frequency is seven times in 24 hours.)
  • Nocturia, can be a symptom ofOAB, in which you wake up several times in the middle of the night to urinate(3)

Here at Uqora, we understand that these can lead to disrupting your daily life, and, ultimately, your mental health. Our private forum, the Uqora Collective, is a space to connect with others who get it. You can join the Uqora Collective or check out our mental health resource.

What is the Main Cause of Overactive Bladder?

Some common overactive bladder causes and contributing factors include: 

  • Bladder muscle dysfunction: OAB occurs when the bladder muscles are overly active, causing them to contract and trigger a sudden, strong urge to urinate even when the bladder isn't full(4).
  • Nerve issues: Damage or dysfunction in the nerves that control bladder function can disrupt communication between the bladder and the brain, leading to overactive bladder symptoms(1).
  • Medical conditions: Some medical conditions, like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and more, can affect bladder function and increase the risk of overactive bladder(3)
  • Medications: Some medications, including diuretics, can affect bladder function and contribute to overactive bladder symptoms(1)
  • Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption: Medications, alcohol, and caffeine can dull nerves, disrupting signals to the brain to cause bladder overflow(1,3)
  • Aging: Aging-related cognitive decline can impair the bladder's response to brain signals, increasing the risk of overactive bladder(3).
  • Extra weight: Those who are overweight may have added pressure on the bladder, which can result in urgency and incontinence(1).
  • Menopause: Hormone level changes during menopause can affect bladder control, leading to increased urgency(1).
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs): Infections in the urinary tract can cause irritation, leading to symptoms similar to OAB. Keep in mind that UTIs don't cause OAB, but they do have similar symptoms(3).

Diagnosing Overactive Bladder

Only a healthcare professional can accurately diagnose overactive bladder. Here’s what the process of diagnosis typically involves: 

  • Reviewing your symptoms: Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, including urinary urgency, frequency, and incontinence. 
  • Medical history: Tell your doctor about any previous bladder or urinary health issues, and your family history. This information helps your doctor identify any potential risk factors. 
  • Dietary habits: Your eating and drinking habits, especially alcohol and caffeine consumption, may be discussed as well since they can worsen overactive bladder symptoms(1,3).
  • Neurological exam: A neurological exam may be used to identify sensory or reflex issues that contribute to OAB(3).
  • Physical exam: A physical exam of the pelvic and rectal areas can be conducted to help check for signs of abnormalities or underlying conditions. 
  • Tests: Your healthcare provider may recommend tests like urinalysis and urodynamic testing, which could include an ultrasound, to confirm the diagnosis(3)

Treating Overactive Bladder

Your doctor might use various approaches to treat OAB, alleviate the symptoms, and improve overall bladder function. From behavioral changes to medical interventions, several options are available to manage OAB. Working closely with your doctor allows you to explore these treatments and find the best approach for you. 

Overactive bladder treatment options

Bladder Retraining

Bladder retraining is a behavioral technique that can help improve bladder control. It involves scheduled voiding intervals to gradually increase the time between bathroom visits (voiding is the scientific term for peeing!)

This method starts to train the bladder to hold urine for longer periods and reduces the frequency of urgency(1)

Medications

Medications are commonly prescribed to manage overactive bladder symptoms by targeting bladder muscle function or nerve signaling. Anticholinergic medications can help control muscle spasms in your bladder, reducing urgency and frequency(1)

Another class of medications is beta-3 adrenergic agonists, which relax the bladder muscle and increase bladder capacity, leading to improved symptoms(1)

Nerve Stimulation

Nerve stimulation therapies target the nerves involved in bladder control. One common technique is sacral neuromodulation, which implants a small wire near the sacral nerves that pass through your tailbone to modulate activity and regulate bladder function(3)

Nerve stimulation is typically considered for individuals who don't respond to more conservative like lifestyle changes and behavioral therapy treatments or medications and may improve their quality of life.

Bladder Injections

Bladder injections are injected into the bladder wall to relax the bladder muscle and reduce symptoms. One common type of bladder injection therapy is onabotulinumtoxinA (also known as, Botox) injections. A small dose injected into bladder tissues can relax the muscles and increase bladder capacity(3)

Surgery

Surgery for an overactive bladder is typically the option when other treatments have failed to provide relief. Surgical interventions may increase the bladder's capacity or remove the bladder completely(3)

Surgical interventions for overactive bladder carry risks and potential complications; they're typically only reserved for those with severe symptoms. 

How Can I Reduce the Risk of an Overactive Bladder?

Taking steps to reduce the risk of developing an overactive bladder can help you maintain bladder health and prevent any existing symptoms from worsening. Here are a few ways to reduce the risk of an overactive bladder in your everyday life: 

  • Strengthen your pelvic floor: Pelvic floor exercises can strengthen the muscles and support the bladder and urethra. Stronger pelvic floor muscles can help stop the bladder from contracting on its own(3).
  • Reduce caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine intake: Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can stimulate the bladder and worsen your OAB symptoms. Trying to limit the intake of these items can help minimize bladder irritability and reduce the frequency and urgency of urination(3)
  • Maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly: Weight can add pressure to the bladder, contributing to urgency and incontinence. Maintaining your healthy weight can help reduce any strain on your bladder(3).
  • Ensure proper hydration: Maintaining adequate hydration is essential for overall bladder health. Drinking enough water prevents dehydration and keeps the bladder lining healthy. However, there is such a thing as drinking too much water, and it can potentially worsen OAB symptoms(1).
  • Know the other conditions that cause OAB : Some medical conditions, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), can worsen your OAB symptoms(1). By getting proactive about your urinary health by practicing good hygiene, staying hydrated, and getting treatment for UTIs, you can help reduce the risk of infections and reduce the likelihood of OAB symptoms.

Overactive Bladder: Frequently Asked Questions

Can an overactive bladder be cured?

While treatments for overactive bladder (OAB) can effectively manage symptoms for many, a complete cure is rare. Various medications, behavioral therapies, and lifestyle changes can improve OAB symptoms and quality of life but may not provide a permanent solution. Surgery is an option for severe cases, aiming to address underlying bladder dysfunction, but it carries risks and may not guarantee a cure(1)

How does overactive bladder affect daily life?

Overactive bladder (OAB) can significantly impact daily life. Many individuals with OAB experience interference with daily activities, including limitations on social engagements and physical exercise. This can sometimes lead to feelings of frustration and isolation, as well as challenges in maintaining a healthy lifestyle(2). We’re here for you every step of the day, you are not alone in this journey. 

Are there any dietary changes that could improve OAB symptoms?

Making changes to your diet can help manage overactive bladder (OAB) symptoms. Some foods and drinks can bother your bladder, making OAB worse. Try cutting down on caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, and drinks with artificial sweeteners(1).

What if my OAB treatment doesn't work?

If your treatment for overactive bladder (OAB) isn't providing the relief you hoped for, there are other options to help manage your symptoms and maintain your daily routine. Some people find that using absorbent products like adult diapers or protective pads can provide peace of mind and help them feel more confident when dealing with leaks. Additionally, wearing dark-colored or patterned clothing can help disguise any accidents that may occur(1).

If your treatment for overactive bladder (OAB) doesn't seem to be working, don't lose hope – there are proactive ways that can help you get ahead of OAB. Sometimes, it can take time to find the right treatment that works best for you. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and any side effects you may be experiencing. 

Author

Sareena Rama manages Uqora’s Digital Content and is responsible for Uqora's social media, newsletters, and contributing articles to the UTI Learning Center.

Reviewer

Heather Ott is Uqora's Senior Health and Science Educator. She supports the team by writing Learning Center articles and reviewing all scientific communications.

References

  1. Causes, symptoms & treatment. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. From https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14248-overactive-bladder 
  2. Reynolds, W. S., Fowke, J., & Dmochowski, R. (2016). The Burden of Overactive Bladder on US Public Health. Current bladder dysfunction reports, 11(1), 8–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11884-016-0344-9
  3. Overactive bladder—Symptoms and causes. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. From https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/overactive-bladder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355715
  4. Overactive bladder (OAB): Symptoms, diagnosis & treatment—Urology care foundation. (n.d.). From https://www.urologyhealth.org/urology-a-z/o/overactive-bladder-(oab)