Written by Dr Sonya N. Ephraim Published on 15th November 2021

This article was updated on 06/06/2023.

Overflow incontinence, dribbling, leaking, bladder overflow: whatever you want to call it, overflow incontinence isn’t much fun. It’s essentially the involuntary release of urine and it usually happens after you’ve been for a pee but weren’t able to empty your bladder completely — causing small amounts to dribble out later. Not ideal.

From the causes to the symptoms — as well as the ways to treat it — here’s everything you need to know about overflow incontinence.

What is overflow incontinence?

Sometimes referred to as chronic urinary retention, overflow incontinence occurs when you’re unable to completely empty your bladder when you go for a pee — causing the bladder to swell. This can then lead to small amounts of urine leaking out later when you least expect it (even if you don’t feel the urge to pee at the time). 

Overflow incontinence is just one of many different types of urinary incontinence, and the quicker you figure out which one you’re suffering from, the quicker the treatment process will be. Other common types of urinary incontinence include:

  • Stress incontinence: The most common type of urinary incontinence, stress incontinence is when you pee yourself when you laugh, cough, or put your bladder under any sort of strain.

  • Urge incontinence: Urge incontinence is characterized by the sudden, intense urge to urinate, and is often caused by an overactive bladder.

  • Functional incontinence: Functional urinary incontinence is classified as a mental or physical impairment that stops you from getting to the bathroom in time.

  • Mixed incontinence: As the name suggests, mixed incontinence is a combination of two or more types of urinary incontinence (usually stress and urge).

Causes of overflow incontinence

Overflow incontinence is caused by urinary retention — essentially, when your bladder is full but you’re unable to empty it — and there are a number of possible triggers for this. These include:

  • A blockage in the urinary tract: Overflow incontinence is often caused by the urethra becoming blocked, which could be the result of urinary stones, scar tissue, tumors, swelling from infection or pelvic organ prolapse.

  • Weak bladder muscles: Bladder muscles can weaken with age or after giving birth, meaning they’re not strong enough to completely empty the bladder of urine.

  • Neurological issues: Conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, and alcoholism can mean messages don’t travel properly from the brain to the bladder, making it difficult to tell when the bladder is full.

  • Medications: Certain medications, including some anticonvulsants and antidepressants, can have an impact on nerve signals to the bladder.

Overflow incontinence symptoms

The most obvious sign that you’re suffering from overflow incontinence is that you’re frequently dribbling urine involuntarily, even when you don’t feel the urge to pee. However, there are a number of additional symptoms of chronic urinary retention — including:

  • Leaking urine after urination.

  • Needing to use the bathroom often but not having much pee come out when you do.

  • Having difficulty peeing despite feeling a strong urge to urinate.

  • Feeling that your bladder is full when you’ve just been to the bathroom.

  • Having your urine stream uncontrollably stop and resume.

  • Dribbling urine involuntarily during the night.

If you believe you may have overflow incontinence, you should make an appointment with your doctor. They will perform a physical exam to diagnose whether you have the condition (for women, this may involve a pelvic exam, while for men the doctor may perform a rectal prostate exam), and they may ask you to keep a record of your fluid intake, bathroom visits, and leakage for a few days.

Overflow incontinence treatment

Depending on the cause and severity of your overflow incontinence, there are several treatments available that can help reduce urine leakage. These differ slightly for men and women because of the body’s complex needs, but here’s an outline of some of the things you can do to relieve urinary incontinence.

Treating overflow incontinence for women

If you’re suffering from urinary retention as a woman, there are a number of ways to treat overflow incontinence. These include:

  • Bladder training: This involves trying to control urination by going to the bathroom at timed intervals (for example, every 2 to 3 hours). You should also wait for a few minutes after urinating to see if you can go again — this is known as ‘double voiding’.

  • Pelvic floor training: Doing Kegel exercises — which involve contracting and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles — can help to increase pelvic floor strength, which can help you avoid leaking urine.

  • Catheter: A catheter is a thin, flexible tube which is inserted into the bladder through the urethra, allowing urine to flow out of the urinary tract and the bladder to fully empty. A straight catheter, also called an intermittent catheter, is inserted every time you need to urinate (usually 3 to 4 times a day), while a foley catheter, also known as an indwelling catheter, remains in place all the time, held in place by a water-filled balloon.

  • Surgery: If there’s something blocking your urinary tract, surgery might be necessary to remove any obstructions. This is why it’s so important to talk to a doctor if you’re suffering from any of the symptoms of overflow incontinence.

  • Neuromodulation: Neuromodulation is a type of pacemaker for the bladder that can improve the ability of the bladder to contract and empty more completely.  For some women this will allow them to avoid the need for self catheterization which is a huge quality of life improvement.

Additionally, while incontinence products such as absorbance pads might not be a treatment as such, they can help to give you your life back. After all, you’ll have more confidence going out and about if you feel like you’re protected from leaks.

Treating overflow incontinence for men

Urinary incontinence in men is often caused by an enlarged prostate gland. For a man suffering with overflow incontinence, the treatment options vary slightly from those of women. They include:

  • Medication: Unlike with women, it’s possible to treat male incontinence using medication. Tablets can be taken that reduce the size of an enlarged prostate to relieve pressure on the urethra and help improve urine flow.

  • Bladder training: A man can help to treat his urinary incontinence by timing bathroom visits to every 2 to 3 hours, and waiting for a few minutes after urinating to see if it’s possible to go again. 

  • Pelvic floor training: As with women, men can reduce urine leakage by strengthening the pelvic floor muscles using Kegel exercises.

  • Catheter: Similarly to women, men may have a straight or foley catheter fitted, which will allow the bladder to fully empty each time.

  • Surgery: If overflow incontinence is caused by an enlarged prostate — also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia — it may be necessary to remove the obstruction through surgery.

  • Neuromodulation: Similarly to the treatment for women, neuromodulation is a type of pacemaker for the bladder that can improve the ability of the bladder to contract and empty more completely. 

Suffering from overflow incontinence? Speak up!

If you’re suffering with frequent urine leakage, you shouldn’t suffer in silence. Urinary incontinence is globally incredibly common – while prevalence estimates vary due to the demographics studied, it’s reported that any type of urinary incontinence affects between 25%-45% of women. Unsurprisingly, that rises with age. 

It might seem like a bit of an awkward or embarrassing thing to talk about with friends and family, but really, it’s just pee. There’s nothing embarrassing about it. It’s a completely normal thing to experience and it’s time to end the stigma — one conversation at a time.

If you’re affected by any of the symptoms of overflow incontinence we’ve detailed above — or you think you might be suffering from any kind of urinary incontinence — it’s important not to leave it untreated. Incontinence is rarely a reason to panic, but it might be a sign of something more serious — and therefore it’s always best to book an appointment with a doctor to get it checked.

How can Elvie help with overflow incontinence?

If you’ve been suffering from urinary incontinence, it’s pretty likely you’ve come across Kegel exercises during your Google searches. These are exercises you can do to strengthen your pelvic floor which will, in turn, strengthen your bladder muscles. And trust us when we say, they can work wonders.

If you need some guidance, our Elvie Trainer can help you regain strength in your pelvic floor. It’s a smart Kegel trainer which uses biofeedback to guide you through each exercise and ensures that your technique stays on point — so, you won’t be second-guessing your skills. All it takes is five minutes, three times a week and our app will help you track your progress as you move from beginner to advanced level.


The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition.