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About Incontinence - Contributing Factors - Diabetes

Medical Reviewer: Shanna Atnip, MSN, WHNP-BC

Type 2 diabetes (used to be called adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent diabetes), is a chronic condition where your body resists the effects of insulin or does not produce enough insulin to maintain a normal glucose level in your body.  Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes, with about 95% of all people with diabetes in the USA having this type.  Nearly 21 million Americans have diabetes. When left untreated, Type 2 diabetes can be life threatening. 

While Type 2 diabetes is more common in adults, we are now seeing children, teenagers, and young adults being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.  Diabetes occurs when you have too much glucose (also called blood sugar) in your blood.  Too much glucose will damage your body over time.  There is no cure for diabetes, but Type 2 can be managed with the help of your healthcare professional through diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.  If diet and exercise do not bring your blood sugar into a healthy range, your healthcare professional will discuss the need for medications or insulin therapy with you.

Type 2 diabetes increases your risk and severity for both urinary and fecal incontinence.  One of the main reasons for this is that an unhealthy weight, often associated with Type 2 diabetes, can cause incontinence from the increased weight placed on the pelvic floor muscles.  Recent studies have shown that a healthy weight loss done under the guidance of a healthcare professional may reduce incontinence.

One of the common symptoms of diabetes (there are many others), is frequent urination.  This is because excess glucose that is building up in your blood stream causes fluid to be pulled from your tissues, leaving you thirsty.  As a result, you drink more and more fluids in an attempt to quench your thirst, making you urinate more than normal.  In addition, your body is also trying to get rid of the extra glucose by excreting it out of your body in your urine.  This process causes a large increase in the amount of urine produced.

Diabetes can lead to nerve damage, which includes the nerves in the bladder and bowel.  The nervous system has four main parts - cranial, central, peripheral, and autonomic.  Diabetes can damage the peripheral, autonomic, and cranial nerves.  Autonomic nerves go from your spinal cord to your lungs, heart, stomach, intestines, bladder, and sex organs.

Autonomic nerves
Nerve damage may lead to several changes in bladder function:

Diabetic women, or women who develop gestational diabetes, may give birth to large sized babies.  During delivery, they can suffer injuries to the perineum and bladder, particularly the sphincter controlling the mouth of the bladder.  This can manifest as retention of urine in the bladder or incontinence.

Constipation, which affects nearly 60% of persons with diabetes, can make it difficult to empty your bladder.

Congestive heart failure (CHF) from diabetes-related coronary artery disease can cause your legs and feet to retain water, and can cause your body to create too much urine at night.  This can lead to getting up many times at night to urinate (nocturia), and may lead to experiencing incontinence at night.

Stroke from diabetes can affect bladder sensation and your ability to hold back from urinating.  Additionally, mental impairment can make it difficult for an individual to toilet himself or herself (and when severely advanced, even toileting with assistance becomes difficult). Mobility issues with incontinence

Mobility challenges due to diabetic neuropathy, peripheral vascular disease, and amputation can prevent you from reaching a toilet, removing clothing, etc. “in time”, leading to episodes of leakage.  This is called "functional incontinence."

Some medications for the treatment of diabetes, or for the treatment of the complications of diabetes, can impair continence or complicate its treatment:

The best way to prevent incontinence associated with diabetes is to:

For those diagnosed with prediabetes, Diabetes Prevention Programs focusing on diet and exercise can significantly reduce the occurrences of urinary incontinence.  Several studies have found that overweight women (at risk for diabetes) who lower their weight , lower their risk of incontinence.

Treatment and Management
The most important thing that persons with diabetes or prediabetes can do is tell your health care provider if you experience frequent or urgent urination, having to get up to urinate more than once a night, or if you have any incontinence episodes.  People experiencing incontinence often do not tell their healthcare professional.  In most cases, incontinence can be treated or managed comfortably.  Everyone's body is different, so everyone responds to treatment and management techniques differently.  You are encouraged to discuss the many available options today with your healthcare professional.

Note: Incontinence in persons with diabetes is not always related to the diabetes.  Incontinence could be caused by completely separate factors.  This is why all changes in your toileting habits should be reported to your healthcare professional.

Shanna AtnipShanna Atnip, MSN, WHNP-BC, is a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner in the Urogynecology Division at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas.  At Parkland, the Urogynecology Division handles the full gamut of pelvic floor issues.  Ms. Atnip has been a part of this department for sixteen years.  She is a member of the Society of Urologic Nurses and Associates (SUNA) and the American Urogynecologic Society (AUGS).  She has been the Southeast Regional Director of SUNA since 2011 and has served in many leadership roles within SUNA.  She has also been a local and national speaker for SUNA conferences and symposia.

Page last modified 16 April 2014