Urinary incontinence is a symptom that hampers roughly 33 million Americans, though that number should probably be much higher because many don’t report their struggle to a doctor out of embarrassment. In the quest to understand this symptom, which diminishes your enjoyment of life as it complicates typically simple tasks, many experts research several types of diseases. One disease category that plays a role are autoimmune diseases, including lupus, scleroderma, Sjorgen’s syndrome, and fibromyalgia to name a few. To learn what an autoimmune disease is, how autoimmune diseases contribute to incontinence, and how to limit your symptoms, read our guide to the interplay between autoimmune diseases and incontinence.
An autoimmune disease is a disorder in which your immune system, meant to stave off viruses, bacteria, and other foreign bodies, attacks a part of your body. In these cases, your body creates antibodies called autoantibodies—proteins that fight your healthy cells. These autoimmune diseases take many forms and target an organ, system, or your entire body in an effort to neutralize the “perceived” threat. For example, Crohn’s disease causes gastrointestinal issues, whereas Sjörgen’s syndrome affects the eyes, mouth, joints, and urinary system. No matter what autoimmune disease you suffer from, inflammation and tissue damage are two commonalities.
Autoimmune diseases and incontinence commonly meet at the issue of interstitial cystitis (IC). IC is a characteristic autoimmune inflammation of bladder tissue that hampers urinary function and leads to incontinence. Bladder inflammation sometimes occurs in response to an infection, but in those with an autoimmune issue, the inflammation occurs regardless of the bladder’s health. While the connection between IC and autoimmune diseases is relatively clear, the mechanism for this connection is generally unknown.
People with interstitial cystitis suffer from several hallmark symptoms, though. Relating to urinary function, they may urinate eight or more times a day and feel the urge to do so constantly. Also, pain at and below the abdomen is common with IC, and gradually worsens as people live with an inflamed bladder. The reason behind this deterioration is likely heightened tissue damage and inability for damaged tissues to heal. After years, scarring causes the bladder to lose its ability to hold urine, increasing your sense of and frequency of urinary urgency. Overall, this contributes to more urgent and frequent urination that becomes uncontrollable.
Autoimmune diseases generally cause incontinence through interstitial cystitis, but what does each autoimmune disease look like? Here’s a brief guide to several common diseases.
Lupus Erythematosus, or lupus, is an autoimmune disease that harms many organs and systems in your body, including your skin, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and urinary system. It seems to have a genetic link and often manifests outwardly through a red rash and scaly sin. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if you have lupus because the initial symptoms that present are flu-like—fever and fatigue are two of earliest signs. Rather than stay constant, they flare up at various times, making detection even harder.
Another autoimmune disease with prominent manifestation on the skin is scleroderma. Meaning “hard skin,” this disease leads to toughened skin from continual collagen buildup. Noticeable external signs include swelling arms and legs and thickening skin, starting near the fingers. A study found 63 percent of people with scleroderma suffer from urinary incontinence. Limited cutaneous systemic sclerosis is a particularly strong sign of eventual bladder issues.
Sjörgen’s syndrome is yet another autoimmune disease that links with incontinence. The body’s immune response in this disorder causes white blood cells to proliferate and attack salivary and tear glands, inhibiting their function. The outward manifestation of this disease is, naturally, eye and mouth dryness, coupled with secondary symptoms such as tooth decay and eye redness and discomfort. Though this affects these glands significantly, Sjörgen’s syndrome leads to urinary difficulties and other damaged bodily systems. Though it deserves further study, both scleroderma and Sjörgen’s syndrome may contribute to deteriorating urinary control because of nerve damage; the blocked nerve does not signal to the bladder to regulate function.
Our final autoimmune disease to mention is fibromyalgia. Rather than attack the joints like some diseases, fibromyalgia causes significant muscle pain and fatigue. It is also associated with mental health issues exacerbated by the chronic mental fog and pain brought on by the issue. The reasons it contributes to incontinence are not immediately clear, but fibromyalgia may damage the nervous system. Affected pelvic muscles used to stop the flow of urine may be more likely to fail with fibromyalgia.
To manage your urinary problems, first consult with a doctor about what’s right for your situation. Just as every autoimmune disease differs, so do the people who suffer from them. Your doctor can give you actionable steps to combat these urinary symptoms, particularly as you’re up against others that debilitate you.
In general though, to protect your bladder from further irritation, try restricting your diet in certain ways. Limit caffeinated beverages, chocolate, simple sugars, and alcohol to preserve your bladder’s health. Also, stay away from spicy foods, citrus fruits, and tomato-based products. Overall, these foods are either irritatingly acidic or otherwise harmful. Doing away with them will limit further pain, give you some control, and help you feel less worn out, especially if you suffer from fibromyalgia.
To help with muscle strength and control, something you’ll need when dealing with an overactive bladder stemming from any one of these autoimmune diseases, exercise your pelvic muscles. To do this, tighten your lower abdomen for several seconds, release, and repeat. Being consistent about doing these will give your body a better sense of stopping an incontinence episode before it starts and the ability to go longer without going to the bathroom. In the end, you gain back valuable freedom.
Finally, incontinence products such as men’s waterproof underwear give you freedom to continue with your daily life even as you navigate how else to lessen your symptoms. Rather than being worried about an accident, your eyes always darting to find where the nearest bathroom is, incontinence products help you relax some and enjoy whatever you’re doing. These are particularly effective in helping you restore your motivation for activities you love but have left behind, and in so doing, they combat your potential mental health symptoms that come with an autoimmune disease.