Overactive Bladder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

What is overactive bladder?

An overactive bladder (OAB), also sometimes referred to as an "irritable bladder", describes a series of problems connected to urgency to urinate. It should be noted that the condition doesn’t involve leakage or wetting accidents. It simply means that the person affected feels a more frequent urge to empty the bladder.

What are the symptoms of an overactive bladder?

An overactive, irritable or sensitive bladder is caused by detrusor overactivity. This means that your bladder tries to expel urine even when it isn’t full. The most obvious symptom is experiencing frequent urination in the daytime.
According to the NHS, it's normal to go to the toilet between four and eight times a day, and once in the night. Any more than this could indicate an overactive or irritable bladder. The condition is more common among older people and women of all ages. Other symptoms include not making it to the bathroom in time to pass urine, bed-wetting and increased visits to the toilet during the night – a condition known as Nocturia, which doesn’t involve bedwetting.
It should be noted that urine leakage is not a symptom of an overactive bladder. If these are occurring it is likely the problem is urge incontinence.

What causes overactive bladder?

There are many potential causes of overactive bladder syndrome, some of which are simply down to everyday lifestyle choices. Though it may sound obvious, things like drinking too much fluid can often be the source of the problem. Certain drinks such as energy drinks, coffee or other drinks containing high levels of caffeine can also contribute to an irritated bladder.
At the opposite end of the scale, low fluid intake can also cause feelings of urgency. Avoiding drinking to reduce feelings of urgency can make the problem worse as urine becomes too concentrated, irritating the bladder lining and resulting in foul-smelling urine and urge symptoms. Dehydration also increases the risk of constipation, a factor known to increases the chances of experiencing urinary incontinence

Serious conditions that can cause overactive bladder

Overactive bladder syndrome can be the result of a more serious medical condition, so it's important to consult a doctor if you notice you're going to the toilet a lot more than usual. Overactive bladder can be caused by the following conditions:
  • Bladder stones
  • Urinary Tract Infection
  • Any obstruction to the urethra
  • Gynaecological problems such as prolapse or ovarian tumours can cause bladder irritation that leads to urgency to urinate.
  • Women who have had previous surgery for stress incontinence can also be affected
  • Uncontrolled diabetes with high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia) may cause increased thirst and urine production
  • Men with problems caused by an enlarged prostate
  • Conditions that affect the nervous system such as Spina Bifida, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's Disease

Overactive bladder at night

An overactive bladder at night, also known as Nocturia, is a common problem, particularly as you age. One in three adults over the age of 30 need to make at least two trips to the bathroom at night.
People experiencing Nocturia have to wake up more than once a night to go to the toilet, where most people can sleep six to eight hours without having to get up. This can result in sleep loss along with other complications, as your normal sleep cycle is disrupted. 
As Nocturia is often caused by overactive bladder, treatment is usually similar to the treatment for overactive bladder. 

Weak bladder in women

Urinary incontinence (informally known as a “weak bladder”) affects twice as many women as men, the two most common types being stress incontinence and overactive bladder. This is due to the fact that certain life events such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause can cause problems with the muscles and nerves that help the bladder to hold or pass urine. 
For more information on the link between bladder leakage and menopause, visit our series of articles called the Menopause Monologues.  

Overactive bladder in men

Many cases of overactive bladder in men are caused by an enlarged prostate. The prostate may get larger with age and block the flow of urine, causing overactive bladder symptoms. However, there are numerous other factors that may be causing the issues other than prostate problems such as lifestyle and bladder stones, along with more serious conditions that affect the nervous system.

What treatments are available for an overactive bladder?

Treating an overactive or sensitive bladder can be complicated as it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the problem. Because of this, treatment often involves targeting the symptoms that are causing the most distress. 
A doctor will first recommend what are known as conservative measures – bladder training, changes to lifestyle, diet etc – as an initial treatment. If these prove to be ineffective, medication may be the next step. If symptoms persist or become more severe, surgical procedures are available. 
If you are concerned about bladder health or are experiencing an increased urgency to urinate, we suggest you first contact a healthcare professional like your GP. They will be able to offer qualified advice on the best course of treatment.

What can I do to manage overactive bladder symptoms?

Seeking medical advice from your GP is important as they will be able to diagnose what's going on, and help you with advice and a treatment plan to improve your condition. There are often simple lifestyle changes that can help you manage the symptoms of an overactive or sensitive bladder, so you can continue living life with more confidence and freedom. 
If you’re experiencing drips or urine leakage, TENA has a full range of pads, pants, shields and other products for both men and women. Discreet and effective, TENA products remove some of the stress caused by the condition by giving you peace of mind and a fresh, dry feeling, day and night. 
If you'd like to keep learning, why not check out our page on how to treat overactive bladder syndrome, or our guide to the bladder.
We’ve also recently partnered with Bladder and Bowel UK to raise further awareness of these types of issues during COVID and beyond – have a look at the partnership here.