INTRODUCTION — Urinary incontinence, the involuntary leakage of urine, is common and undertreated [1-4]. It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of adult women experience urinary incontinence, yet only 25 to 61 percent of symptomatic community-dwelling women seek care [4-8]. Patients may be reluctant to initiate discussions about their incontinence and urinary symptoms due to embarrassment, lack of knowledge about treatment options, and/or fear of surgery.
This topic will review the epidemiology, risk factors, etiology, and initial evaluation of the non-pregnant woman with urinary incontinence. Treatment of urinary incontinence in women and urinary incontinence in men are discussed separately:
●(See "Urinary incontinence in men".)
In this topic, when discussing study results, we will use the terms "woman/en" or "patient(s)" as they are used in the studies presented. However, we encourage the reader to consider the specific counseling and treatment needs of transgender and gender diverse individuals.
IMPACT ON HEALTH — While generally not felt to contribute to overall mortality , a meta-analysis reported that, for nursing home residents, urinary incontinence is associated a 20 percent increased risk of death (hazard ratio [HR] 1.20, 95% CI 1.12-1.28, six cohort studies, 1656 participants) . More commonly, urinary incontinence impacts other aspects of a patient's health.
●Quality of life – Urinary incontinence is associated with depression and anxiety, work impairment, and social isolation [11-16]. Urinary incontinence adversely impacts quality of life in nursing home residents as well as those who live independently .
●Sexual dysfunction – Urinary incontinence during sexual activity (coital incontinence), which may affect up to one-third of all incontinent individuals, and fear of urinary incontinence during sexual activity both contribute to incontinence-related sexual dysfunction [18-20]. Urgency urinary incontinence had greater negative impact on sexual function compared with urgency or frequency without incontinence [21,22].
●Morbidity – Medical morbidities associated with urinary incontinence include perineal infections (eg, candida or cellulitis) from moisture and irritation as well as falls and fractures that in turn increase overall morbidity, mortality and health care costs [23,24]. In older women with urinary urgency or urgency urinary incontinence, falls are up to twice as common than among women without urinary symptoms [24,25].
●Increased caregiver burden – In addition to being a burden for caregivers, urinary incontinence is negatively associated with the ability to perform other activities of daily living, thus increasing the need for caregiver assistance [26,27]. Six to 10 percent of nursing home admissions in the United States are attributable to urinary incontinence .
Prevalence — Urinary incontinence is common in women, particularly in pregnancy. Urinary incontinence in pregnancy is discussed separately. (See "Effect of pregnancy and childbirth on urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse".)
Estimates of prevalence vary depending on the population studied, the measurement period (eg, daily or weekly), and the instruments and definitions used to assess severity. Overall prevalence of urinary incontinence among non-pregnant women age 20 years and above has been reported to range from 10 to 60 percent [8,29-33]. The US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), using data from 2000 to 2014, estimated that 9.6 million women >50 years of age experience bothersome stress and/or urgency urinary incontinence . For women age 60 years and older, prevalence rates of over 50 to 70 percent have been reported [8,35]. The impact of age on urinary incontinence is discussed below. (See 'Risk factors' below.)
One-third of women in the Nurse's Health Study (aged 54 to 79 years) who reported urine leakage once monthly at baseline progressed to leaking at least once a week over two-year follow-up . However, not all women who develop urinary incontinence will have symptoms indefinitely. In a longitudinal cohort study of 4127 middle-aged women, the annual incidence rate of urinary incontinence was 3.3 percent and the annual remission rate was 6.2 percent . Factors associated with persistent symptoms (ie, no resolution) were weight gain and transition to menopausal status.
Risk factors — Risk factors for urinary incontinence include [38-43]:
●Age – Both the prevalence and severity of urinary incontinence increase with age [8,29,32,33,44]. In large surveys of non-pregnant women, urinary incontinence was reported to affect 3 percent of adult women under age 35, rose to 7 percent for ages 55 to 64 years, and rose to 38 to 70 percent for women over age 60 [8,29,45,46]. Urinary incontinence is particularly common in individuals living in nursing homes, with reported rates ranging from 43 to 77 percent [42,47,48].
However, studies controlling for other comorbid conditions suggest that age alone may not be an independent risk factor for urinary incontinence .
●Obesity – Obesity is a strong risk factor for urinary incontinence . Obese women have a nearly threefold increased odds of urinary incontinence compared with non-obese women [32,38,46,51,52], and chronic obesity is associated with increased risk of developing incontinence later in life . Weight reduction is associated with improvement and resolution of urinary incontinence, particularly stress urinary incontinence (SUI). A meta-analysis of 33 studies reported reductions in both SUI and urgency urinary incontinence following weight loss from either bariatric surgery or behavior modification .
●Parity – Multiparity is a risk factor for urinary incontinence [43,55,56]. (See "Effect of pregnancy and childbirth on urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse", section on 'Prevalence in parous women'.)
However, nulliparous women also report bothersome urinary incontinence, with 25 percent of women ages 25 to 34 years reporting urinary incontinence, increasing to 32 percent of women ages 55 to 64 years 
●Mode of birth – Compared with women who have had a cesarean birth, women who have a vaginal birth are at higher risk for urinary incontinence, particularly SUI [33,43,57,58]. Vaginal birth appears to increase the risk of urgency urinary incontinence as well but to a lesser degree than for SUI . However, cesarean birth does not fully protect women from urinary incontinence. (See "Effect of pregnancy and childbirth on urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse", section on 'Mode of delivery'.)
●Family history – The risk of urinary incontinence, particularly urgency urinary incontinence, may be higher in patients with a family history. One study found that the risk of urinary incontinence was increased for both daughters (relative risk [RR] 1.3, 95% CI 1.2-1.4) and sisters (RR 1.6, 95% CI 1.3-1.9) of women with incontinence . Twin studies attribute a 35 to 55 percent genetic contribution to urgency incontinence/overactive bladder but only 1.5 percent for stress incontinence [60,61]. Genetic markers have been identified for urgency urinary incontinence but not SUI .
●Ethnicity/race – The prevalence of urinary incontinence by race or ethnicity in women has been variably reported. Some studies report higher prevalence in non-Hispanic White women compared with African American women [29,31,63-65]. Other studies do not report differences between racial/ethnic groups [32,66,67].
●Others – Other factors associated with urinary incontinence in females include:
•Medical comorbidities and medication – Diabetes, stroke, depression, fecal incontinence, genitourinary syndrome of menopause/vaginal atrophy, hormone replacement therapy, genitourinary surgery (eg, hysterectomy), and pelvic radiation have been associated with increased risk of urinary incontinence [1,51,64,68-74]. Additional risk factors for urgency urinary incontinence include impaired functional status, recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs), and bladder symptoms in childhood, including childhood enuresis [75,76]. Urinary incontinence is also common in persons with cognitive impairment/dementia, with the prevalence ranging from 10 to 38 percent .
For medication, a study of 98 women and men reported that individuals with urgency urinary incontinence were more likely to avoid diuretic medication compared with patients experiencing stress or mixed urinary incontinence as the drugs were associated with worsened urinary symptoms .
•High impact exercise – Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) has been associated with participation in high-impact activities, including jumping and running [78,79]. For example, an online study of 423 women reported that those participating in CrossFit had substantially higher rates of urinary incontinence (84 versus 48 percent) than those participating in general fitness classes . In a survey of 480 competitive female powerlifters, 44 percent reported urinary incontinence within the past three months .
•Diet and smoking
-Caffeine – Data on caffeine intake have been conflicted. While earlier studies reported an association [82,83], a 2016 meta-analysis of seven studies on caffeine intake did not support an association with urinary incontinence .
-Alcohol – Very limited available evidence suggests alcohol consumption does not significantly impact urinary incontinence [85,86].
-Artificial sweeteners – In secondary analysis of data from the US Women's Health Initiative Observational Study of postmenopausal women, consuming greater than or equal to one serving of artificial sweetener per day was associated with a 10-fold increased risk of mixed urinary incontinence compared with consuming none or less than one serving per week (adjusted odds ratio 1.10, 95% CI 1.02-1.19, n = 80,388 participants) . Significant differences were not found for SUI or urgency urinary incontinence and the study did not differentiate among types of artificial sweeteners.
-Smoking – Smoking has been associated with an increased risk of urinary incontinence [82,83,88-90].
•Urogenital microbiome – Emerging evidence suggests that the urogenital microbiome differs between continent and incontinent women, particularly for urgency urinary incontinence [91-94]. There is conflicting evidence regarding the bacterial diversity in other types of incontinence [94,95]. Additional research is needed to understand the role of the urogenital microbiome in both health and urinary incontinence.
ETIOLOGY — Continence depends upon both intact micturition physiology (including lower urinary tract, pelvic, and neurologic components (figure 1)), intact pelvic floor muscle and connective tissue support (figure 2 and figure 3), as well as functional ability to toilet oneself.
Classification — The main types of urinary incontinence are stress, urgency, and overflow incontinence. Many women have features of more than one type, which is termed mixed urinary incontinence [96,97]. Identifying the classification of incontinence helps guide therapy. (See "Female urinary incontinence: Treatment".)
Stress urinary incontinence — Individuals with stress urinary incontinence (SUI) have involuntary leakage of urine that occurs with increases in intraabdominal pressure (eg, with exertion, sneezing, coughing, laughing) in the absence of a bladder contraction [55,98,99]. SUI is generally thought to be related to the lack of mechanical support of the urethra and/or poor coaptation of the urethral tissues resulting in insufficient resistance to outflow of urine during increased abdominal pressures. It is the most common type in younger women, with the highest incidence in women ages 45 to 49 years [44,75,100,101].
Mechanisms of SUI include:
●Urethral hypermobility – Urethral hypermobility is thought to stem from insufficient support of the pelvic floor musculature and vaginal connective tissue to the urethra and bladder neck . This causes the urethra and bladder neck to lose the ability to completely close against the anterior vaginal wall. With increases in intra-abdominal pressure (eg, from coughing or sneezing) the muscular tube of the urethra fails to close, leading to urinary incontinence (like stepping on a hose in sand).
Insufficient urethral support may be related to loss of connective tissue and/or muscular strength due to chronic pressure (ie, high-impact activity, chronic cough, or obesity) or trauma due to childbirth, particularly vaginal deliveries. Childbirth can cause trauma directly to the pelvic muscles and may also damage nerves leading to pelvic muscle atrophy and dysfunction. Treatments for hypermobility SUI are aimed at providing a backboard of support for the urethra. (See "Effect of pregnancy and childbirth on urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse", section on 'Mechanisms of pelvic floor injury' and "Female urinary incontinence: Treatment".)
●Intrinsic sphincteric deficiency – Intrinsic sphincteric deficiency (ISD) is a form of SUI that results from a loss of intrinsic urethral mucosal and muscular tone that normally keeps the urethra closed. In general, ISD results from neuromuscular damage and can be seen in women who have had multiple pelvic or urinary incontinence surgeries. ISD can occur in the presence or absence of urethral hypermobility and typically results in severe urinary leakage even with minimal increases in abdominal pressure. Treatment is aimed at improving urethral blood flow with vaginal estrogen and increasing urethral coaptation with pelvic muscle exercise or surgery. ISD is challenging to treat and has worse surgical outcomes [103-105]. (See "Female stress urinary incontinence: Choosing a primary surgical procedure", section on 'Lack of urethral hypermobility and intrinsic sphincter deficiency'.)
Urgency urinary incontinence — Women with urgency urinary incontinence experience the urge to void immediately preceding or accompanied by involuntary leakage of urine [76,98]. The amount of leakage ranges from a few drops to completely soaked undergarments. "Overactive bladder" is a term that describes a syndrome of urinary urgency with or without incontinence, which is often accompanied by nocturia and urinary frequency [76,98]. The terms "urgency incontinence" and "overactive bladder with incontinence" are often used interchangeably.
Urgency urinary incontinence is more common in older women and may be associated with comorbid conditions that occur with age [106,107]. It is believed to result from detrusor overactivity, leading to uninhibited (involuntary) detrusor muscle contractions during bladder filling . This may be secondary to neurologic disorders (eg, spinal cord injury), bladder abnormalities, increased or altered bladder microbiome, or may be idiopathic [76,108-111]. The prevalence of involuntary detrusor contractions, or detrusor overactivity, has been found in 21 percent of healthy, continent, community-dwelling older adults . (See "Chronic complications of spinal cord injury and disease", section on 'Urinary complications'.)
Mixed urinary incontinence — Women with symptoms of both stress and urgency urinary incontinence are described as having mixed urinary incontinence [98,113].
Overflow urinary incontinence — Overflow urinary incontinence typically presents with continuous urinary leakage or dribbling in the setting of incomplete bladder emptying. Associated symptoms can include weak or intermittent urinary stream, hesitancy, frequency, and nocturia. When the bladder is very full, stress urinary leakage can occur or low-amplitude bladder contractions can be triggered resulting in symptoms similar to stress and/or urgency urinary incontinence.
Overflow urinary incontinence is caused by detrusor underactivity or bladder outlet obstruction.
●Detrusor underactivity – Detrusor underactivity may be caused by impaired contractility of the detrusor muscle . Impaired urothelial sensory function may also contribute. Studies suggest that detrusor contractility and efficiency decrease with age . Severe detrusor underactivity occurs in about 5 to 10 percent of older adults [107,115] and 45 percent of women undergoing urodynamic evaluation for non-neurogenic lower urinary symptoms . Other etiologies of detrusor underactivity include smooth muscle damage from chronic or severe acute sustained overdistention of the bladder, Fowler’s syndrome, fibrosis, low estrogen state, peripheral neuropathy (due to diabetes mellitus, vitamin B12 deficiency, alcoholism), and damage to the spinal detrusor efferent nerves by pathologies affecting the spinal cord (eg, multiple sclerosis, spinal stenosis) [117-120]. (See "Chronic urinary retention in females", section on 'Causes of urinary retention' and "Chronic urinary retention in females", section on 'Fowler's syndrome' and "Disorders affecting the spinal cord".)
A subset of women with this condition can have detrusor hyperactivity with impaired contractility (DHIC). With DHIC, the bladder does not effectively contract to empty and also has low-amplitude hyperactivity, resulting in urgency as well as overflow incontinence. DHIC is particularly difficult to treat as any therapy for overactivity results in increased urinary retention and overflow incontinence.
●Bladder outlet obstruction – Bladder outlet obstruction in women is rare and generally caused by external compression of the urethra. This can occur with fibroids that obstruct the urethra, advanced pelvic organ prolapse (ie, beyond the hymen), or overcorrection of the urethra from prior pelvic floor surgery. Less common causes include external masses or tumors at the level of the bladder outlet, urethral stricture, or uterine incarceration of a retroverted uterus (which can occur in pregnancy or in the setting of fibroids). An additional yet rare condition, called “Fowler’s syndrome,” has been described and is characterized by increased urethral sphincter activity during voiding that results in a functional obstruction of the urethra . (See "Pelvic organ prolapse in females: Epidemiology, risk factors, clinical manifestations, and management" and "Incarcerated gravid uterus" and "Chronic urinary retention in females", section on 'Fowler's syndrome'.)
Other contributing factors/conditions — Other etiologies for urinary incontinence include other urologic or gynecologic disorders, systemic diseases, and potentially reversible causes (eg, medications).
●Genitourinary syndrome of menopause/vaginal atrophy – In postmenopausal women, low estrogen levels result in atrophy of the superficial and intermediate layers of the urethral mucosal epithelium. Atrophy results in urethritis, diminished urethral mucosal seal, loss of compliance, and possible irritation, all of which can contribute to incontinence. (See "Genitourinary syndrome of menopause (vulvovaginal atrophy): Clinical manifestations and diagnosis", section on 'Pathophysiology'.)
●Urinary tract infection – Lower urinary tract infections (UTIs) can present with symptoms of overactive bladder that exacerbate urinary incontinence symptoms. Not all women with a UTI will experience pain or hematuria. Women with UTI may have more incontinence not only during the episode but also immediately following the UTI . (See "Acute simple cystitis in females", section on 'Clinical suspicion and evaluation'.)
●Other urologic/gynecologic disorders – Other less common urologic or gynecologic disorders that can cause urinary incontinence include urogenital fistulas, urethral diverticula, and ectopic ureters. (See "Urogenital tract fistulas in females".)
●Systemic causes – Patients who have underlying medical conditions that contribute to urinary incontinence will also have other characteristic features or relevant history.
•Neurologic disorders – Spinal cord disorders can lead to overflow urinary incontinence as discussed above. Other examples of neurologic disorders that can lead to urinary incontinence include stroke, Parkinson disease, and normal pressure hydrocephalus. (See "Complications of stroke: An overview" and "Clinical manifestations of Parkinson disease" and "Normal pressure hydrocephalus".)
Overflow urinary incontinence and poor urinary stream can be present in patients with diabetic autonomic neuropathy. (See "Diabetic autonomic neuropathy".)
•Cancer – Less common systemic causes of urinary incontinence include bladder cancer or invasive cervical cancer. (See "Clinical presentation, diagnosis, and staging of bladder cancer" and "Invasive cervical cancer: Epidemiology, risk factors, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis", section on 'Clinical manifestations'.)
●Potentially reversible causes – Potentially reversible causes of or contributors to urinary incontinence may include medications (table 1), alcohol and excessive caffeine intake, and constipation/stool impaction .
●Functional urinary incontinence – Functional urinary incontinence occurs when a patient has intact urinary storage and emptying functions but is physically unable to toilet herself in a timely fashion. This appears to be a common contributor to urinary incontinence for older women. As an example, in one study that included 177 women aged 57 to 85 years with daily urinary incontinence, 62 percent reported at least one functional disability or dependence and 24 percent reported specific difficulty or dependence with using the toilet . Such functional incontinence may be reversible in the setting of modifiable factors (eg, decreased mobility postsurgery, decreased manual dexterity, and change in cognitive or mental status from sedation from medications) [98,125,126].
●Cognitive impairment – The association between cognitive impairment and incontinence is in part mediated by functional impairment and disability . Comorbid conditions and medications also often contribute.
EVALUATION — The initial evaluation of urinary incontinence includes characterizing and classifying the type of incontinence, identifying underlying conditions (eg, neurologic disorder or malignancy) that may manifest as urinary incontinence, and identifying potentially reversible causes of incontinence [128-130].
The evaluation should start with a thorough history, physical examination, and urinalysis [75,129]. Additional evaluation is warranted in the presence of complex medical conditions or concerning findings on history and/or physical examination.
History — Many patients are reluctant to initiate a discussion about their urinary incontinence. Screening questions may be appropriate, especially for older women and those who have comorbid conditions associated with increased risk (eg, prolapse, accidental bowel leakage, diabetes, obesity, neurologic disease) [131,132].
The history further clarifies the patient's urinary symptoms and severity and identifies potential underlying causes that may be treatable or require further evaluation . Classifying the type of incontinence helps direct treatment. (See "Female urinary incontinence: Treatment".)
Classifying urinary incontinence — Symptoms of incontinence and classification can be elicited using short standardized questionnaires. The three incontinence questionnaire (3IQ) (form 1) can help distinguish between stress, urgency, and mixed urinary incontinence . In a multicenter study of 300 middle-aged women with moderate incontinence, the 3IQ had a sensitivity of 0.75 and specificity of 0.77 for identifying urgency incontinence and a sensitivity of 0.86 and specificity of 0.60 for stress urinary incontinence (SUI) .
Relevant urinary symptoms include frequency, volume, severity, hesitancy, precipitating triggers, nocturia, intermittent or slow stream, incomplete emptying, continuous urine leakage, and straining to void . Symptom clusters are associated with specific voiding abnormalities. As examples:
●Stress urinary incontinence is associated with urine loss with increases in intraabdominal pressure, such as occurs with laughing, coughing, or sneezing. Urine volume lost may be small or large. There is no urge to urinate prior to the leakage.
●Urgency urinary incontinence/overactive bladder is associated with frequent, small volume voids that may keep the patient up at night or worsen after taking a diuretic. The patient has a strong urge to void with an inability to make it to the bathroom in time.
●Overflow urinary incontinence due to detrusor muscle underactivity is characterized by loss of urine with no warning or triggers. The volume leaked may be small or large. Urine loss often occurs with a change in position and/or with activity. Symptoms may also be associated with urinary frequency, urgency, and/or voiding difficulties such as urinary hesitancy, slow flow, and nocturia. Women with this condition may be misdiagnosed as mixed urinary incontinence, which is why evaluation of post-void residual (PVR) is important.
●Overflow urinary incontinence due to urinary outlet obstruction, such as from pelvic organ prolapse, fibroids, or pelvic surgery, is often associated with stress and/or urgency urinary incontinence symptoms and often an intermittent or slow stream, hesitancy (difficulty getting urine stream started), and a sensation of incomplete emptying. Women with obstruction often need to strain to pass their urine or may have pain and cramping with voiding attempts and usually describe a sense of incomplete emptying.
Systemic symptoms — We evaluate all women with incontinence for urinary tract infection (UTI), asking about symptoms such as fever, dysuria, pelvic pain, and hematuria. (See "Acute simple cystitis in females", section on 'Clinical suspicion and evaluation'.)
Symptoms that are concerning for other underlying conditions as the cause of urinary incontinence include lifelong or sudden onset of incontinence, associated abdominal/pelvic pain or gross hematuria without urinary tract infection, changes in gait or new lower-extremity weakness, cardiopulmonary or neurologic symptoms (for example, the combination of overflow urinary incontinence, perineal anesthesia, and new accidental bowel leakage suggests cauda equina syndrome), mental status changes, recurrent documented UTIs (three or more per year), advanced pelvic organ prolapse beyond the hymen, elevated PVR (>1/3 total volume), long-term urinary catheterization, or difficulty passing a urinary catheter. Women with these symptoms should have appropriate workup and evaluation for underlying conditions and/or specialist referral if necessary. (See 'Specialist referral' below.)
We also ask about changes in bowel function (eg, constipation and accidental bowel leakage) and symptoms of pelvic organ prolapse (seeing or feeling a lump beyond the opening of the vagina) as these conditions often coexist . (See "Fecal incontinence in adults: Etiology and evaluation" and "Pelvic organ prolapse in women: Diagnostic evaluation".)
Alcohol and caffeine — We routinely elicit alcohol and caffeine intake habits as they have been associated with lower urinary tract symptoms . Caffeine intake has been postulated to exacerbate urinary incontinence due to its smooth muscle stimulant and diuretic effects. Although a small pilot study demonstrated reductions in urinary urgency and frequency with intake of decaffeinated compared with caffeinated drinks, meta-analyses failed to identify significant associations between caffeine and urinary incontinence [84,135,136].
Voiding diaries — Voiding diaries are helpful in the assessment of urinary incontinence symptoms. One example, of a voiding diary can be found online. While basic diary records of frequency and volume are neither sensitive nor specific for determining the cause of incontinence [96,137], they may be helpful to determine if urinary incontinence is associated with high fluid intake. In addition, they provide a measure of the severity of the problem that can be followed over time. Voiding diaries also identify the maximum bladder capacity and time interval that the woman can reasonably wait between voids, a measure used to guide bladder training (table 2). (See "Female urinary incontinence: Treatment", section on 'Bladder training'.)
While most clinical studies use a three-day voiding diary to assess outcomes of treatment, we find better compliance with a 24-hour diary. Normal voiding frequency is less than eight times a day and once at night, with total volumes of less than 1800 mL per 24 hours [138,139].
Impact on quality of life — Clinicians should identify those symptoms that are most bothersome to the patient as this can help guide treatment. The impact of the patient's incontinence on her quality of life can be assessed informally by asking a few targeted questions or by using a validated instrument (eg, International Consultation on Incontinence Questionnaire and Kings Health Questionnaire are available for evaluating impact of incontinence on quality of life) . We use the Pelvic Floor Distress Inventory and the Pelvic Floor Impact Questionnaire . The Patient Global Impression of Improvement (PGII) and Patient Global Impression of Severity (PGIS) (table 3) are also acceptable measures to assess improvement and satisfaction, respectively . (See "Female urinary incontinence: Treatment".)
Physical examination — Not all women presenting with urinary incontinence need a pelvic examination prior to initiating behavioral or medical therapy as long as the symptoms allow the clinician to differentiate between stress versus urgency urinary incontinence, there is a low suspicion for urinary retention, and there is no systemic or other evidence of pelvic pathology. (See 'History' above.)
Women with atypical symptoms, diagnostic uncertainty, or failure of initial treatment strategies should undergo pelvic examination with special attention to evaluate for pelvic floor muscle integrity, vaginal atrophy, pelvic masses, and advanced pelvic organ prolapse beyond the hymen.
The components of a detailed pelvic examination are discussed separately. (See "The gynecologic history and pelvic examination", section on 'Components of the examination' and "Genitourinary syndrome of menopause (vulvovaginal atrophy): Clinical manifestations and diagnosis", section on 'Pelvic examination' and "Pelvic organ prolapse in women: Diagnostic evaluation".)
Initial treatment strategies for urinary incontinence are discussed separately. (See "Female urinary incontinence: Treatment", section on 'Initial treatment'.)
A detailed neurologic examination is not necessary in the initial evaluation of all women with incontinence unless patients present with sudden onset of urinary incontinence (especially urgency symptoms) or new onset of neurologic symptoms . If there is concern for neurologic disease, we perform a limited evaluation of lower-extremity strength, reflexes, and perineal sensation. As examples, weakness with hyperreflexia of the lower extremity may suggest an upper motor neuron lesion; absent perineal sensation with decreased rectal tone is concerning for cauda equina syndrome. (See "The detailed neurologic examination in adults".)
Laboratory tests — A urinalysis should be performed for all patients, and urine culture performed if a UTI or hematuria is suggested on screening.
We do not routinely check renal function unless there is concern for severe urinary retention resulting in hydronephrosis . Other laboratory testing is determined by signs or symptoms elicited on history and physical examination. (See "Etiology and evaluation of hematuria in adults", section on 'Urine cytology' and "Clinical presentation, diagnosis, and staging of bladder cancer" and "Etiology and evaluation of hematuria in adults", section on 'Risk factors for malignancy'.)
Clinical tests — Only a few clinical tests are necessary for the initial evaluation of a woman with urinary incontinence as conservative treatment can be initiated based on symptoms alone. We do not obtain radiographic imaging for the initial evaluation in patients without complex neurologic conditions or abnormal findings on physical examination.
We check a bladder stress test as part of the initial workup of SUI. Although in our subspecialty practice we routinely evaluate women with a PVR by either catheterization or bladder scan, this is not necessary in the initial evaluation of urinary incontinence by the general practitioner. Urodynamic testing is also not routinely performed initially but may be done prior to considering surgical therapies or when there diagnostic uncertainty or evidence of urinary retention. (See "Surgical management of stress urinary incontinence in females: Preoperative evaluation for a primary procedure", section on 'Office testing' and "Surgical management of stress urinary incontinence in females: Preoperative evaluation for a primary procedure", section on 'Urodynamic testing'.)
●Bladder stress test – In patients with suspected SUI, we perform the bladder stress test to confirm the diagnosis. This test is performed with the patient in the standing position with a comfortably full bladder. Ideally, the bladder should have at least 150 to 300 mL for an adequate assessment. While the examiner visualizes the urethra by separating the labia, the patient is asked to Valsalva and/or cough vigorously. The clinician observes directly whether or not there is leakage from the urethra. This test may be difficult in women with severe obesity, mobility or cognitive impairments; these women may benefit from performing the test in the dorsal lithotomy position.
The positive predictive value of the bladder stress test is 78 to 97 percent . A pooled analysis of three studies demonstrated that a positive bladder stress test helps to confirm stress urinary leakage in women with stress or mixed urinary incontinence . A negative test is less useful because a false negative may result from a small urine volume in the bladder or from patient voluntarily inhibiting leakage.
●Post-void residual – Measuring the PVR is not required for initial therapy for stress or urgency urinary incontinence . However, measuring the PVR can be helpful when diagnosis is uncertain, initial therapy is ineffective, or in patients where there is concern for urinary retention and/or overflow urinary incontinence. These patients include those with neurologic disease, recurrent urinary tract infections, history concerning for detrusor underactivity or bladder outlet obstruction, history of urinary retention, severe constipation, pelvic organ prolapse beyond the hymen, new-onset or recurrent incontinence after surgery for incontinence, diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy, or medications that suppress detrusor contractility or increase sphincter tone (table 1) [129,144-146].
Parameters for interpreting the results of PVR testing are neither standardized nor well-evaluated. In general, a PVR of less than one-third of total voided volume is considered adequate emptying. We use a PVR of >150 mL or >1/3 total volume as a cutpoint for further evaluation of voiding dysfunction. Additional suggested parameters include a PVR under 50 mL as normal and a PVR greater than 200 mL as abnormal [139,147]. (See "Postoperative urinary retention in females", section on 'Spontaneous voiding trial'.)
●Urodynamic testing – We do not routinely refer for urodynamic testing in the initial evaluation of urinary incontinence in women whose symptoms are consistent with stress, urgency or mixed, urinary incontinence [148,149].
Urodynamic testing is invasive, costly, and not necessary prior to initiating therapy. Urodynamic testing has not been shown to predict outcomes of nonsurgical or surgical treatment of urinary incontinence. A systematic review of 99 studies including over 80,000 women found insufficient evidence to support the ability of urodynamic testing to predict the outcomes of nonsurgical treatment for SUI . Additionally, a randomized multicenter trial of preoperative urodynamic testing for uncomplicated SUI demonstrated no improvement in surgical outcomes .
However, in women with suspected overflow incontinence (eg, underlying neurologic conditions, history of diabetes, or by symptom history), urodynamic testing may be indicated for further evaluation. Indications for urodynamic testing are discussed separately. (See "Urodynamic evaluation of women with incontinence".)
●Urethral mobility evaluation – Some subspecialists may evaluate for urethral hypermobility. This is discussed separately. (See "Surgical management of stress urinary incontinence in females: Preoperative evaluation for a primary procedure", section on 'Assessing urethral mobility'.)
Specialist referral — In a minority of cases, referral to a specialist is warranted for patients with urinary incontinence. Indications for referral include the presence of:
●Associated abdominal or pelvic pain in the absence of UTI
●Culture-proven recurrent UTIs (three or more per year or two in six months)
●Gross or microscopic hematuria with risk factors for malignancy in the absence of a UTI  (see "Etiology and evaluation of hematuria in adults", section on 'Urine cytology' and "Clinical presentation, diagnosis, and staging of bladder cancer" and "Etiology and evaluation of hematuria in adults", section on 'Risk factors for malignancy')
●Other abnormal physical examination findings (eg, pelvic mass, pelvic organ prolapse beyond the hymen) (see "Pelvic organ prolapse in females: Epidemiology, risk factors, clinical manifestations, and management")
●New neurologic symptoms in addition to urinary and/or bowel incontinence
●Uncertainty in diagnosis
●History of pelvic reconstructive surgery or pelvic irradiation
●Persistently elevated PVR volume, after treatment of possible causes (eg, medications, stool impaction)
●Suspected overflow incontinence, particularly in the setting of underlying conditions (eg, neurologic conditions, diabetes)
●Chronic urinary catheterization or difficulty passing a catheter
SOCIETY GUIDELINE LINKS — Links to society and government-sponsored guidelines from selected countries and regions around the world are provided separately. (See "Society guideline links: Urinary incontinence in adults".)
INFORMATION FOR PATIENTS — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials, "The Basics" and "Beyond the Basics." The Basics patient education pieces are written in plain language, at the 5th to 6th grade reading level, and they answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials. Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are written at the 10th to 12th grade reading level and are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.
Here are the patient education articles that are relevant to this topic. We encourage you to print or e-mail these topics to your patients. (You can also locate patient education articles on a variety of subjects by searching on "patient info" and the keyword(s) of interest.)
●Basics topics (see "Patient education: Urinary incontinence in females (The Basics)" and "Patient education: Neurogenic bladder in adults (The Basics)" and "Patient education: Treatments for urgency incontinence in females (The Basics)")
Patients can be referred to incontinence patient advocacy groups. These groups can supply additional information about incontinence and its management, including links to product suppliers. Some useful resources are:
●National Association for Continence: 1-800-BLADDER (252-3337)
●Simon Foundation for Continence: 1-800-23SIMON (237-4666)
SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
●Prevalence and risk factors – Female urinary incontinence is common. While the prevalence varies by population being studied, up to 60 percent of reproductive-age females have reported urinary incontinence at any one time. Risk factors for urinary incontinence include obesity, vaginal parity, older age, and family history. (See 'Epidemiology' above.)
●Types of female urinary incontinence – The major clinical types of urinary incontinence are stress urinary incontinence (SUI; leakage with maneuvers that increase intraabdominal pressure), urgency urinary incontinence (sudden urgency followed by leakage), mixed urinary incontinence (symptoms of both stress and urgency), and overflow incontinence. "Overactive bladder" is a term that describes a syndrome of urinary urgency, with or without incontinence. (See 'Classification' above.)
Other etiologies for urinary incontinence in women include other less common urologic or gynecologic disorders (eg, urogenital fistulas, cancer), neurologic diseases (eg, multiple sclerosis), and potentially reversible causes [eg, medications (table 1)]. (See 'Other contributing factors/conditions' above.)
●Initial evaluation – The initial evaluation of urinary incontinence includes characterizing and classifying the type of incontinence, identifying underlying conditions (eg, neurologic disorder or malignancy) that may manifest as urinary incontinence, and identifying potentially reversible causes of incontinence. This evaluation includes a thorough history, urinalysis, and physical examination when appropriate. (See 'Evaluation' above.)
•History – The history classifies and prioritizes the patient's urinary symptoms, as well as identifies other symptoms that indicate the need to evaluate further for underlying causes of incontinence due to serious conditions or potentially reversible medical or functional conditions. (See 'History' above.)
•Role of pelvic examination – Women presenting with complicated symptoms of urinary incontinence or who fail initial behavioral and medical treatments should have a pelvic examination. Additionally, a patient's history may suggest other components of the physical examination that are important in diagnosis. (See 'Physical examination' above.)
•Urinalysis and urine culture – A urinalysis should be performed in all patients. If a urinary tract infection (UTI) is suspected, then a urine culture is obtained. (See 'Laboratory tests' above.)
•Clinical tests – A bladder stress test is used to diagnose SUI. Post-void residual (PVR) volume and urodynamic testing are not required for initiation of treatment. (See 'Clinical tests' above.)
●Specialist referral – Referral to a specialist is indicated in a minority of cases: incontinence with abdominal/pelvic pain or hematuria in the absence of UTI, suspected vesicovaginal fistula, abnormal physical examination findings (eg, pelvic organ prolapse beyond the hymen), new neurologic symptoms in addition to urinary and/or bowel incontinence or suspected overflow incontinence. Women with three or more culture-proven UTIs in a year or at least two in six months warrant referral to a specialist. (See 'Specialist referral' above.)
ACKNOWLEDGMENT — The UpToDate editorial staff acknowledges Catherine E DuBeau, MD, who contributed to an earlier version of this topic review.
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