Fiona McMahon, DPT
The bladder, not super complex right? Just a tupperware for pee, holding your urine until an opportune time to go. The bladder is so much more than that, integrating information from the brain, muscles of the pelvic floor, and responding to stretch to efficiently serve its purpose. We never think of the bladder until something goes wrong with it.
In honor of bladder health month, we will be exploring the anatomy of the bladder, what is normal for the bladder, what can go wrong with the bladder, and how to best take care of your precious and hard working bladder.
Bladder Anatomy/ Physiology
Male or female, we all have the same basic structure of the bladder, with a few exceptions. Here’s what everyone has in their lower urinary tract.
- Detrusor Muscle: Forms the body of the bladder and is responsible for squeezing the bladder to empty its contents. It spends most of its time relaxed in order to allow for bladder filling.
- Trigone Muscle: Forms the neck of the bladder, and is a powerful sensory organ. When the trigone stretches in response to the filling of the bladder, it sends a message to the brain that it’s time to pee.
- Internal Urethral Sphincter: Smooth muscle (involuntary) which seals off the exit of the bladder and allows for continence.
- External Urethral Sphincter: Striated or voluntary muscles which also seals the exit of the bladder.
- Urethra: This is the tube that leads out of the bladder and is the pathway for urine into the outside world.
Men have a prostate. The prostate is a sex organ and is responsible for keeping the semen at the right pH to fertilize a waiting egg. It wraps around the urethra and lives just under the bladder. It also provides a mechanical buttress or support for the bladder, lessening the load on the pelvic floor. Because of its proximity to the urethra, problems with the prostate can cause problems with the bladder. An enlarged prostate, which can be a benign part of aging, cancer, or infection, will restrict the flow of urine out of the urethra, resulting in weak stream, painful, burning urination, and difficulty urinating (the same thing happens with tight pelvic floor muscles). A prostate that has been surgically removed, most often has occurred for treatment of prostate cancer can reduce support for the bladder and lead to leaking. For more information on prostate cancer click here and for more info on prostatitis, click here!
Another important difference between people with female and male anatomy are the respective length of their urethras. Male urethras are a lot longer than female urethras. This is one of the reasons people with female anatomy are more prone to bladder infections. In a female, bacteria have a lot easier time making the trek to the bladder because of the shorter urethra.
Conditions of the Bladder
Incontinence is the involuntary leakage of urine. There are many causes of incontinence. It’s important to know why you are leaking in order to know how to appropriately remedy it. It is possible to have more than one type of incontinence, and when that occurs we call it mixed incontinence. Let’s go through the types together.
- Urge incontinence occurs when you leak urine after a sudden urge to urinate. We call it, lock in key syndrome, because certain events like unlocking the door to your home can cause urge incontinence. This is the type of incontinence, which should be treated first in cases of mixed urge/stress incontinence.
- Stress incontinence is the result of pelvic floor weakness that prevents the closure of the external urethral sphincter with activities that increase the pressure on the bladder, like coughing, laughing, lifting or sneezing. Pelvic floor weakness can occur if the muscles and or connective tissues are too loose to create an efficient contraction and more commonly, especially with athletes, too tight or imbalanced, to fully close the external urethral sphincter. Read more about incontinence in athletes here.
- Functional incontinence occurs when you physically can not get to the bathroom in time to urinate. This is common in the elderly or disabled, who may have trouble ambulating to the bathroom, removing clothing, or transferring from a chair into standing. It is imperative that this type of incontinence is treated aggressively by a physical therapist or occupational therapist as it increases the risk of potentially fatal or disabling falls.
Incomplete voiding is when the bladder does not fully empty.
In a normally functioning patient, volitional effort should not be required to empty the bladder. A pelvic floor that is unable to relax, will have a smaller opening for urine to pass through or the voluntary muscles involuntarily contract because of muscle spasming, resulting in hesitancy, or incomplete bladder emptying.
Pain is our body’s way of telling us there is something wrong. With a new onset of bladder pain, it is important to rule out infection or an organic condition. Often times musculoskeletal conditions or general bladder irritation can mimic bladder infections. In our practice, we often see patients who had been convinced they had an infection only to find out all of their tests for infection, where in fact, negative and the source of their pain was a tight or shortened pelvic floor.
It is important to understand the character of your bladder pain. Does your bladder hurt as it fills with urine and then feels better only shortly after voiding? If your answer is yes, you may have bladder irritation from urine that isn’t dilute enough (you are not drinking enough water), or you are consuming something irritating like spicy food, caffeine or alcohol. You may also have a condition known as painful bladder syndrome/interstitial cystitis which is contributing to your symptoms. It is important to get a handle on bladder filling pain right away, because it is the first step in treating other conditions such as frequency, urgency, incomplete emptying and retention.
If you have pain and burning during urination with no infection, it is likely the pelvic floor muscles and tissues cannot relax enough to allow urine to flow out without burning, (the pelvic floor also plays a role in bladder filling pain as well). Burning with urination that is not caused by an infection, is treatable with pelvic floor PT.
Everytime I hear someone say “I have a small bladder”, I have the uncontrollable urge to say, “No, you have a sensitive bladder, which can be trained to be better”. Saying you have a small bladder is 95% of the time fatalistic and just untrue. Most bladders, with few exceptions can hold 400-600 mL. Holding capacity can be diminished in cases of constipation, pregnancy and some neurological conditions, but most everyone is working with similarly sized equipment (the exception, being growing children).
Average intervoid interval, aka times between pees, is 2-3 hours, unless you chug a liter of fluid or cups of caffeine in one sitting. An example is being able to make it through James Cameron’s, Titanic, without having to excuse yourself. The trick with the bladder is it’s antsy. It informs you with the first urge to urinate when it is approximately 40% full. Over time, if you listen at that first urge, the bladder will begin to inform you earlier and earlier until you are going once every 20 minutes. Training your bladder to hold more is achieved with ignoring the urge or practicing various behavioral strategies, like deep diaphragmatic breathing with pelvic floor drops, to allow for longer intervals until your bladder capacity is within normal limits. This can be a longer process for those with a more sensitive bladder.
Bladder training is complicated by pain. Pain usually must be treated simultaneously in order to truly get the most benefit from bladder retraining. It is also important to realize that substances like caffeine and alcohol increase urgency and make bladder training more difficult.
How to Manage Bladder Issues:
Fortunately, there is a lot you can do, RIGHT now to manage your bladder symptoms. I find that in my practice and everyday life, there is a certain fatalism about bladder conditions. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard phrases like, “ I just have a small bladder”, “Women my age after babies just leak”, “I am older so I pee more at night” and “it’s always been like this”. The bladder is a trainable organ and the muscles influencing it can be stretched and strengthened like any other muscle in the body. The best part is there is so much you can do for yourself at home. It’s totally worth trying and in many cases is a life changer.
Diet and fluid intake:
It may sound counter intuitive, but drinking plenty of water is good for almost all bladder conditions. Yes I am talking about leaking, urgency, incomplete emptying and frequency. Drinking lots of water keeps your urine nice and dilute, minimizing the irritation of the bladder wall as well as the reactive spasm of the detrusor muscle. You should drink approximately half your bodyweight in ounces of water a day. For example: a 150 lbs person should consume 75 ounces of water a day. You should increase this amount if you are exercising, or experience a lot of sweating or drink a lot of caffeine and or alcohol, which are both dehydrating. It is also important to be mindful of bladder irritants which can worsen bladder issues. Big irritant culprits are alcohol, caffeine, citrus, and spicy food. In children, dairy milk is a common bladder irritant. Keep in mind that one person’s bladder irritant may not be your bladder irritant. It’s easy to look at lists of bladder irritants and get overwhelmed. Try eliminating a suspected offender for two to three days. If you feel better when you aren’t consuming that item and worse when you add it back in, consider eliminating that item from your diet. It is also important to eat in a way that prevents constipation, as this worsens bladder symptoms and puts extra pressure on the bladder.
If you are having problems fully emptying your bladder or you have post void leakage ( dribbles following going to the bathroom) consider your toileting posture. People with bladder issues should sit on the toilet ( even dudes), to allow the pelvic floor muscles to relax and allow the bladder to fully empty.
If you have bladder frequency or leakage now is the time to try and train your bladder to hold more urine. Keep in mind you should start treatment to address pain with physical therapy and in certain cases, with medication, to allow you to be successful with bladder training. I always tell my patients to start their bladder retraining at home, where a bathroom is available to take the stress out of possible leaks or not being able to find a bathroom. Start by simply waiting to go to the bathroom 5-10 minutes past your first urge to urinate. Use behavioral strategies, such as deep breathing and pelvic floor drops, mindfulness, distraction and others. If you don’t have to go after 5-10 minutes, Great! If you do, go to the bathroom. As waiting 10 minutes becomes easy, stretch your time to 20 minutes and so on until you are able to go 2-3 hours in between urination.
Physical therapy is considered a mainstay and top treatment for musculoskeletal causes of bladder disorders and bladder pain. Expert pelvic floor physical therapists are clinicians who can find the cause of your bladder issues and provide you with a customized plan that will provide you with the best results possible. PT’s can work to relax spasmed muscles, treat constipation contributing to bladder issues, improve your toilet posture, reduce tightness around the bladder, abdominal and thigh region that can contribute to bladder dysfunction, as well as strengthen weak muscles. If you are experiencing bladder issues, please come see us. There is so much we can do to help!
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Chang H, Lynm C, Glass R, et al. Urinary incontinence in older women. JAMA, 2010; 303(21): 2208
FitzGerald M, Brensinger C, Brubaker L, et al. What is the pain of interstitial cystitis like?. International Urogynecology Journal Including Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. 2005
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