It begins with a bit of discomfort and soon becomes a pressing sensation that’s impossible to ignore. Finally, it’s all you can think about, and out of sheer desperation, you go on a hunt for a bathroom until “ahh.” Humans should urinate at least four to six times a day, but occasionally, the pressures of modern life forces us to clench and hold it in. How bad is this habit, and how long can our bodies withstand it?
The answers lie in the workings of the bladder, an oval pouch that sits inside the pelvis. The bladder can stretch – to a limit – so you can keep on keepin’ on, but how do you sense your bladder’s fullness so you know when to pee? As your bladder fills, millions of stretch receptors get triggered, and they send signals along your nerves to the sacral region in your spinal cord. A reflex signal travels back to your bladder, making the muscles of the bladder wall contract slightly and increasing the bladder’s pressure so you’re aware that it’s filling up.
With about 150 to 200 milliliters of urine inside of it, the bladder’s muscular wall is stretched enough for you to sense that there’s urine within. At about 400 to 500 milliliters, the pressure becomes uncomfortable. The bladder can go on stretching, but only to a point. Above 1,000 milliliters, it may burst. Most people would lose bladder control before this happens, but in very rare cases, such as when as a person can’t sense the need to urinate, the pouch can rupture. Eep!
But under normal circumstances, your decision to urinate stops the brain’s signal to the external urethral sphincter, causing it to relax and the bladder to empty. The external urethral sphincter is one of the muscles of the pelvic floor, and it provides support to the urethra and bladder neck. It’s lucky we have these pelvic floor muscles because placing pressure on the system by coughing, sneezing, laughing, or jumping could cause bladder leakage. Instead, the pelvic floor muscles keep the region sealed until you’re ready to go. But holding it in for too long, forcing out your urine too fast, or urinating without proper physical support may over time weaken or overwork that muscular sling. That can lead to an overactive pelvic floor, bladder pain, urgency, or urinary incontinence. So in the interest of long-term health, it’s not a great habit to hold your pee. But in the short term, at least, your body and brain have got you covered, so you can conveniently choose your moment of sweet release.
From the TED-Ed Lesson Is it bad to hold your pee? – Heba Shaheed
Animation by Artrake Studio