What Is Overactive Bladder?

Making Frequent Trips to the Bathroom May Mean You Have Overactive Bladder

End of the toilet paper roll
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How often should you urinate? Most people go between six and eight times a day. But there are a few things can affect that range; among them, fluid intake (especially if you drink coffee and alcohol) and certain medications (like those that cause a rapid increase in urine production or require you to take them with lots of water).

But, generally speaking, six to eight bathroom visits in a 24-hour period is considered the norm.

Normal Bladder Function

Your kidneys filter out wastes and extra water to produce urine. The urine travels down two narrow tubes called ureters and is then stored in a muscular, balloon-like organ called the bladder. The bladder swells when it's full and gets smaller as it empties. When the bladder empties, urine flows out of the body through the urethra (u-REE-thruh). In women, the urethral opening is located just above the vagina. In men, it's at the tip of the penis.

As your bladder fills, nerve signals sent to your brain eventually trigger the need to urinate. When you urinate, nerve signals coordinate the relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles and the muscles of the urethra (urinary sphincter muscles). The muscles of the bladder tighten, pushing the urine out.

If all of this happens eight or more times a day (including a few times in the middle of the night), you may have what's known as a frequency problem.

Frequency can be caused by an overactive bladder. 

What Is Overactive Bladder?

Overactive bladder occurs because the muscles of the bladder start to contract involuntarily even when you don't have much urine in your bladder. This involuntary contraction creates a sudden urge to urinate that's difficult to control or stop, and may lead to the involuntary loss of urine (incontinence).

If you think you may have overactive bladder, see your doctor. He will likely check to make sure that you don't have an infection or blood in your urine. He may also want to make sure that you're emptying your bladder completely when you urinate—not doing so may lead to symptoms of overactive bladder since you have little space left to store urine—and he'll look for clues that point to contributing factors. Expect him to:

  • Ask about your medical history
  • Do a physical exam, focusing on your abdomen and genitals
  • Take a urine sample to test for infection, traces of blood or other abnormalities
  • Conduct a focused neurological exam that may identify sensory problems or abnormal reflexes
  • Do what's known as urodynamic testing—any procedure that looks at how well the bladder, sphincters, and urethra are storing and releasing urine.

Most urodynamic tests focus on the bladder’s ability to hold urine and empty steadily and thoroughly. Urodynamic tests can also show whether the bladder is having involuntary contractions that cause urine leakage.

 Most urodynamic tests don't involve special preparations. Depending on the test, you may be asked to arrive with a full bladder. For a few hours afterwards, it may be a little uncomfortable to urinate. Drinking an 8-ounce glass of water every half-hour during that period may help relieve the discomfort. 

More About Overactive Bladder and Loss of Bladder Control


Urinary Incontinence In Women. NIDDK / NIH. http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/uiwomen/. Accessed 04/15/10.

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