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6 Strategies for Managing an Overactive Bladder

By Claire Gillespie
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
January 09, 2023

Treatments for overactive bladder (OAB) can include medical and surgical options, but there are also a number of nonmedical strategies for OAB management that doctors recommend and that women say have worked for them. Certain lifestyle changes may also help reduce those frequent, sudden urges to urinate that characterize the condition.

“Overactive bladder describes urgency of urination, frequency (typically, voiding more than eight times in 24 hours, or more than you used to), and sometimes leakage of urine on the way to the bathroom,” says Patricia A. Wallace, M.D., a board-certified female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgeon at Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California.

If you’ve been diagnosed with OAB, you may be feeling unsure about the best way forward. But information is power. Talk to your doctor and to other women who have experienced similar things. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist as needed, and women who have experienced OAB may be able to offer ideas, too. The more strategies you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to find something that helps mitigate your symptoms.

How to Avoid Frequent Urination

These six life hacks can help you with OAB management.

1. Drink Strategically

Jan Porter, 45, from Sydney, has found that the best way to reduce her bathroom trips is to be strategic about how and when she consumes liquids. She now makes choices based on what’s happening on a particular day. “I generally drink in the morning when I know I’ll be at home, or when I have access to a bathroom in the next 15 minutes.”

Drinking strategically also applies to bedtime. To avoid waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, which disrupts sleep, try to limit liquid intake before turning in. Drink more during the day and try to avoid drinking anything close to bedtime.

When you need to travel, strategic drinking might look a little different. Amy Hill Fife, a pelvic health physical therapist who has a private practice in Grand Junction, Colorado, recommends ensuring that you’re well hydrated every day for three days before you travel. (The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggest that an adequate daily fluid intake, including food and drink, is about 11.5 cups [2.7 liters] of fluids a day for women.)

2. Take Steps to Reduce Stress

For Jan, being under stress seems to make managing her overactive bladder more difficult. She has found that taking magnesium tablets helps her feel more relaxed, which she believes may in turn help reduce her urgency. “The urgency is the real killer,” she says. “So, there’s enormous relief in knowing you can get to the bathroom without an accident.”

Another option is to consider yoga. A recent study revealed that eight weeks of yoga was able to reduce the burden of urinary incontinence.

Wallace recommends stress relief options as well, including diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes called belly breathing or abdominal breathing). When the muscular partition that separates the chest and abdominal cavities, known as the diaphragm, is actively pulled down when taking a deep belly breath, it works not just the diaphragm itself but also the abdominal muscles and even the stomach.

The following breathing exercise is a simple-but-effective way to move through a stressful time. Find a comfortable position lying on your back. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Slowly take a deep breath in through your nose. You should feel your chest move down a little and your stomach rise. Then, exhale and allow your stomach to slowly relax back down.

Besides acting as a stress relief, diaphragmatic breathing may help relax tight pelvic floor muscles and may also be incorporated as part of the technique taught to help lift or contract the pelvic floor.

3. Practice Kegels

“One of the functions of the pelvic floor is to provide sphincter control for your bladder and bowels, which basically means they keep you from leaking stool or urine,” Fife says. “I recommend pelvic floor exercises (Kegels) to improve incontinence and sudden bladder/bowel urges, as well as other things.”

So, how do you know if you’re doing a Kegel correctly? “You’ll feel your anus move up and in as well as a tightening around your urethra and your vagina (more in the front area of your pelvis near your pubic bone),” Fife explains. “You should also be able to feel the muscles completely relax.”

Another way to think about it is that it’s the same action needed to stop urinating midstream. You can go to your doctor, who can use biofeedback training to help you do Kegel exercises more effectively.

4. Give Your Diet a Fiber Boost

“If my bowels get blocked up at all, then it inevitably increases the urgency,” Jan says.

Tanya Freirich, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in North Carolina, says, “If you’re passing solids regularly and easily, that’s a good sign that your fiber intake is on point.” But if not, there are simple dietary solutions. “Increase your intake of insoluble fiber (found in bran, vegetables, and whole grains) to add bulk, and soluble fiber (barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and some fruits and vegetables) to attract water,” Freirich says.

Freirich also recommends avoiding foods that could make your bladder spasm more. Common intolerances include lactose, a sugar found in milk; casein, a protein found in milk; and gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley.

Other foods (known as diuretics) can lead to increased urination and bladder spasms. Examples include alcohol, caffeine, watermelon, and celery. “Alcohol and caffeine can also worsen bladder spasm, and foods that may worsen overactive bladder include soda, seltzer water, dairy, vinegar, sugars, chocolate, tomatoes, and citrus juice and fruits,” Freirich adds.

5. Make Bladder Training Part of Your Daily Routine

Retraining your bladder by getting on a schedule is another strategy for how to avoid frequent urination. Wallace suggests you can do this by starting to go every hour while you’re awake (to make it easier to remember, go on the hour, i.e., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 12 p.m., and so on). If that goes well, increase the time the following day so that you wait one hour and 15 minutes between bathroom trips.

The goal is to increase the time by 15 minutes each day until you can wait at least two hours between trips. “The bladder learns good and bad behaviors very easily,” Wallace says.

6. Plan Your Bathroom Breaks During Travel

If you’re going on a long car journey, Fife recommends planning your bathroom breaks carefully, checking your route ahead of time to make sure there are public restrooms when you need them. If you’re flying, make sure to urinate in the airport before you board and to go regularly on the flight. “Go right before landing so you don’t get stuck trying to hold it in and then leak,” Fife adds.

If All Else Fails

Remember, managing an overactive bladder is different for everybody. If you’re finding that your symptoms are significantly limiting your life, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss other treatment options that may help.

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