Jenilee Matz has a master’s degree in public health and worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a health communications specialist. She writes for several health publications including Everyday Health, HealthDay, and Diabetic Connect.
Overactive bladder is a bothersome condition that affects nearly 33 million people in the United States. If you’re one of the people suffering from overactive bladder but you've been unable to manage your symptoms, take heart. Bladder problems can be caused by several different factors, so it’s not always easy to treat at first.
Having weak pelvic floor muscles or certain infections, being overweight, or using medications, alcohol, or caffeine can cause overactive bladder. And sometimes, it’s all in your head.
Bladder problems and your brain
That's right, overactive bladder can stem from a problem in your brain. The nerves may misfire and send signals to the brain telling the bladder to empty at the wrong times. This nerve damage can be caused by conditions like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or stroke. It can be brought on as a result of back or pelvic surgery, radiation, or an injury, such as a herniated disc.
Another brain issue that causes overactive bladder is white matter disease, particularly in seniors. White matter disease is caused by an age-related decline in the part of the nerves (the white matter) that connects different parts of the brain to one another and to the spinal cord. White matter disease typically occurs along with other neurological problems like Parkinson’s disease or vascular dementia.
White matter disease can lead to several problems in older age, including overactive bladder and incontinence. New research suggests that bladder challenges may even be the first symptom of white matter disease in some people. Since white matter disease increases with age, bladder challenges usually worsen, too, if left untreated.
Finding treatment that works
If your overactive bladder is caused by a brain issue, lifestyle changes—such as diet tweaks, Kegel exercises, and using the bathroom at set times during the day—likely won't be enough to manage your symptoms.
Experts say your best bet for relief is to take anticholinergic drugs (that work by stopping nerve signals, including muscle spasms in the bladder) and to take steps to control the disease that’s causing your bladder problems.
For example, if you have diabetes, getting and keeping your blood sugar near the goal may improve bladder symptoms. Or if you have Parkinson’s disease, taking medication as prescribed by your doctor may help keep incontinence in check.
If you're dealing with overactive bladder, talk to your doctor. Together you'll come up with a plan to get your symptoms under control—and get your old life back.