Overactive Bladder's Impact on Quality of Life

Life less enjoyable with overactive bladder symptoms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

An overactive bladder never gives you a break. The condition is uncomfortable, potentially embarrassing, and as studies have found, have a deep impact on a person's quality of life.

A number of large studies in North America, Europe, and now Asia have found that overactive bladder (OAB) symptoms are associated with a decline in the quality of patients' work and home life, as well as their sexual life. People with overactive bladder also have higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Overactive bladder is characterized by the strong, sudden urge to urinate, regardless of how much urine is in the bladder. The bladder muscles spasm, or contract inappropriately, resulting in the feeling of urgency. Overactive bladder affects both men and women with a multitude of symptoms.


Medical researchers believe that overactive bladder is under diagnosed, despite increased awareness and improving diagnostic tools and treatment. Large research studies have attempted to address the true prevalence of OAB among adults. In other words, doctors want to know how common it is to have OAB symptoms.

It turns out that OAB is very common, affecting people among many cultures. The EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study found that overall prevalence in Europe is 11.8 percent, out of 19,000 participants. Rates were similar for men and women, and the number of cases went up with age. Another European study, this time with 17,000 participants, reported a slightly higher prevalence of 16.6 percent in respondents over the age of 40.

In North America, the NOBLE study surveyed 5,000 respondents over the phone. Interestingly, the study found that OAB was the second most common health condition. The only more prevalent condition was arthritis.

A brand new study from Korea saw a higher overall prevalence of OAB, with 22.9 percent of 2,000 respondents fitting the criteria. It found that in adults over 40, the prevalence of OAB is 24.3 percent. These statistics suggest that people suffering from OAB should not feel alone in dealing with their symptoms.

Impact on quality of daily life

Overactive bladder is a problem on a daily basis. People with OAB fear having “accidents,” or having to make excuses for frequent trips to the restroom. As a result, they may not be able to enjoy the things they used to enjoy doing.

In the Korean survey, more than 37 percent of participants with OAB symptoms reported moderate or severe difficulties with their daily life. OAB made mundane tasks like housework and shopping more difficult. The Korean researchers also found that people with OAB had lower work productivity, compared to people without OAB.

A US study found that in 900 women treated for OAB, 23 percent were not able to go on short outings, and 12 percent stayed at home more often than they would have, had they not experienced symptoms.

Impact on quality of sexual life

The impact of OAB on sexual life is one of the less-studied aspects of quality of life. A study that focused on sexual function in women found that among those with OAB, nearly half experienced sexual dysfunction. One researcher found that urge of incontinence “significantly reduces” sexual function and satisfaction in pre-menopausal women.

Women with OAB symptoms typically had less sexual desire due to pain and the feeling of needing to urinate. Enjoyment decreased due to fear and anxiety about needing to “void,” or leaking during sex. These issues strained relationships with partners or spouses. Women who were not in a relationship had reluctance to begin a sexual relationship for these reasons.

Impact on mental health

Dealing with overactive bladder can also have an effect on mental health. OAB has been associated with an increased risk for experiencing depression and anxiety. OAB also can also worsen the quality of sleep.

Fortunately, OAB can be treated. The first step is talking to your primary care physician. Finding the treatment that works for you is a process. There are many behavioral strategies to reduce the feeling of urgency, and work towards a return to the feeling of normalcy. Medications for OAB also exist. Ask your doctor how treatment can help you improve your quality of life.

Review Date: 
December 3, 2011