Incontinence: Types, Causes, And Treatment

Many of us have experienced the discomfort of peeing by accident, leaking into our underwear when we cough or laugh, or having trouble getting to the toilet on time.

If this is happening on a regular basis, however, you may have a medical condition known as incontinence. This isn’t restricted to bladder troubles either, as it can also affect bowel movements.

Here’s what you need to know about incontinence: types, causes and treatment.

What is Incontinence?

To understand the meaning of incontinence, let’s start with the definition of continence, which is the ability to control your bladder and bowel. Incontinence, therefore, is the involuntary loss of bladder and bowel control.1

Incontinence covers the accidental or involuntary loss of urine from the bladder, which is known as urinary incontinence; or the involuntary loss of feces from the bowel, known as fecal incontinence.1

Incontinence can range in severity from a small leak to complete loss of bladder or bowel control.1

Urinary Incontinence

It’s not uncommon to experience the occasional leak of urine, such as when you can’t reach the toilet on time. It does seem to happen more often as we age, but it isn’t inevitable that we will experience it as a result of aging.2 

Others experience incontinence more often, losing small to moderate amounts of urine more frequently. It can be severe for some, who have a strong urge to urinate and can’t get to a toilet in time.2

There are also different types of urinary incontinence. Here are the Mayo Clinic’s definitions:2

1. Stress incontinence: When urine leaks due to pressure on your bladder, such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising or lifting something heavy.

2. Urge incontinence: When there’s a sudden and intense urge to urinate followed by an involuntary loss of urine, and the need to urinate often. It may be caused by a minor condition, such as infection, or a more severe condition such as a neurological disorder or diabetes.

3. Overflow incontinence: When you experience frequent or constant dribbling of urine because your bladder doesn’t completely empty.

4. Functional incontinence: When you can’t make it to the toilet on time due to a physical or mental impairment, such as severe arthritis, which can make it difficult to unbutton your pants quickly.

5. Mixed incontinence: When you experience more than one type of urinary incontinence, which is most often a combination of stress incontinence and urge incontinence.

There are different causes of urinary incontinence, including physical changes brought on by pregnancy, childbirth or menopause; a urinary tract infection or other physical ailment; or certain foods or drinks that stimulate your bladder.2

Women are more likely to have stress incontinence, and those who are overweight, who smoke, or who have a family history can also be at risk.2

There are various forms of treatment for urinary incontinence, depending on the type and severity:3

  • bladder training
  • scheduled trips to the toilet
  • fluid and diet management
  • performing pelvic floor muscle exercises
  • medication
  • medical devices such as a pessary
  • surgery

See a doctor for diagnosis to help determine the best treatment plan for you.

Fecal Incontinence

Fecal incontinence, also known as bowel incontinence, is when you can’t control bowel movements. Stool leaks from your rectum without warning, from the occasional time that it may leak when passing gas, to complete loss of bowel control.4

The most common causes of fecal incontinence are diarrhea, constipation, and muscle or nerve damage typically caused by giving birth, or as a result of aging.4

There are two types of fecal incontinence:4

1. Urge incontinence: When you can’t stop the urge to defecate, and it happens so quickly that you can’t make it to the toilet in time. 

2. Passive incontinence: When you are not aware of the need to pass stool.

It can also happen when you’re suffering from bowel problems that cause diarrhea, constipation or gas and bloating.

Fecal incontinence can be the result of various causes, such as muscle or nerve damage, chronic constipation or diarrhea, or rectal prolapse.4

Women are at risk following childbirth, and it’s also more common over 65 years of age. Dementia, physical disability and damage caused by conditions like diabetes or multiple sclerosis are also risk factors.4

Treatment options vary from strengthening exercises like Kegels to surgery. Once again, proper diagnosis can lead to an effective treatment plan. Although fecal incontinence is embarrassing, it’s important to talk about it with your doctor.

See a Doctor

Incontinence can impact every area of your life, so if you have any type of recurring incontinence, seek treatment. See a doctor to be properly diagnosed by studying your medical history and likely performing a physical exam. Treatment can improve your symptoms and your quality of life.

Use our Physician Finder to find a doctor near you with expertise in women’s health, who is willing to work with you to determine the best way to diagnose and treat your incontinence.