Incontinence Types


“Incontinence” is a broad term that’s used to describe any involuntary release of waste matter. It can happen to men and to women, and includes urinary incontinence and fecal incontinence.

However, the most common form of incontinence is urinary incontinence (UI). According to the Urology Care Foundation, “a quarter to a third of men and women in the U.S. suffer from urinary incontinence.” And while both genders can experience urinary incontinence, women tend to suffer slightly more than men. 

There are two things that exacerbate the problem for women: 

  1. The female urethra is shorter, which means there’s less distance for urine to travel between the bladder and leaking outside the body
  2. For women who have been through pregnancy and childbirth, these events also put added stress on the pelvic muscles, which can impact a woman’s ability to “hold” her bladder, either while pregnant or later in life

What Is Urinary Incontinence (UI)

Urinary incontinence (UI) is really any unwanted leakage of urine. That’s a pretty broad definition and can cover everything from:

  • Temporary incontinence caused, for example, by a terrible scare, or not having access to a bathroom


  • Persistent incontinence caused by a medical concern

Temporary incontinence is often not something to worry about. Some of us experience it when we eat too much spicy food or drink too much. It can also be a response to certain medications — your doctor or pharmacist should warn you if this is a likely side effect.

But temporary incontinence can also be caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI) and then you should see your doctor. Other symptoms of urinary tract infections include a burning sensation when peeing and blood in your pee (though that might not always happen).

Mostly, though, it’s persistent incontinence that you’ll want to see your doctor about. Because the bladder and the brain work together to control urinary function, there are different types of incontinence, with different causes and treatments.

While, to you, the result may be the same (unwanted leakage), to your doctor these differences will be important in helping you find the right course of treatment.

Let’s look at the 5 main types of incontinence.

What Are the Different Types of Urinary Incontinence

It is generally considered that there are 5 types of urinary incontinence. Each type of incontinence has a different set of causes (though some overlap) and of treatments.

1. Stress Incontinence

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Stress Incontinence At-a-Glance

How / When it Manifests

Some Possible Causes

Treatment May Include

Urine loss during physical exertion, whether it be exercise or more physical reactions like coughing, sneezing, laughing etc.

  • Childbirth
  • Trauma from surgery (e.g. hysterectomy)
  • Weak bladder muscles
  • Weak pelvic floor muscles 
  • Menopause
  • Pelvic floor exercises (Kegel exercises) to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles
  • Surgery

Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) occurs during physical exertion. This can be the obvious physical exertion of doing exercise. But it can also include bodily functions and involuntary reactions like coughing, sneezing, even laughing. The cause of stress incontinence is generally weakened muscles that become weaker when the body is experiencing the ‘stress’ of those exertions, so fails to hold in your pee.

2. Urge Incontinence

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Urge Incontinence At-a-Glance

How / When it Manifests

Some Possible Causes

Treatment May Include

An impossible-to-ignore urge to urinate, even if you just went or felt fine just minutes before.

  • Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Overactive bladder (OAB)
  • Pregnancy
  • Childbirth
  • Menopause
  • Trauma to the bladder and urethra from surgery
  • Weak bladder muscles
  • Weak pelvic floor muscles 
  • Biofeedback therapy
  • Pelvic floor exercises (Kegel exercises) to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles
  • Surgery

Urge incontinence causes a sudden and urgent need to use the washroom. It can happen even if you’ve peed recently and or felt completely normal just a minute ago. And if they can’t get to a bathroom in time,  urine leakage may happen. This is urge incontinence.

Urge incontinence can be caused by a miscommunication between your brain and your bladder. There can be false messages that the bladder is full and needs emptying. Or “too late” nerve signals that you need to urinate.

3. Mixed Incontinence

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Mixed Incontinence At-a-Glance

How / When it Manifests

Some Possible Causes

Treatment May Include

A combination of stress and urge incontinence.

  • The same causes as stress and urge incontinence
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Medication
  • Bladder botox injections

Mixed incontinence is when a person experiences both urge and stress incontinence. It’s not uncommon to experience both issues with bladder control - and indeed mixed incontinence is the second most common form of incontinence in women.

4. Overflow Incontinence

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Overflow Incontinence At-a-Glance

How / When it Manifests

Some Possible Causes

Treatment May Include

If the flow of urine “dribbles” or is unsteady, you may have overflow incontinence. The inability to completely empty your bladder can lead it to overflow and cause unexpected urine leaks.

  • Weak bladder muscles
  • Underactive bladder
  • Blockages in the urinary tract
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Surgery to remove blockages
  • Use of catheter

If you pee frequently but it has an unsteady, dribble-like flow of urine, this could point to overflow incontinence. With this type of incontinence, the bladder cannot actually empty when you pee and the amount of urine you eliminate may be small. And because your kidneys continually produce urine, this can lead your bladder to overflow later, without warning.

5. Functional Incontinence

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Functional Incontinence At-a-Glance

How / When it Manifests

Some Possible Causes

Treatment May Include

This is when you experience urine loss, but the cause is not associated with any problems with the urinary system.

  • Neurological or psychological problems or conditions
  • Physical impairments like spinal cord injuries
  • Nursing assistance
  • Changing physical settings
  • Medications and therapies to address underlying medical condition

Functional incontinence is probably the easiest form of incontinence to understand, because it isn’t caused by any damage to the urinary system but usually by another medical condition.

This kind of incontinence can have neurological or psychological causes (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease). But it can also be caused by physical impairments which prevent a person from acting on their need to urinate. These can include physical obstacles, such as spinal cord injuries and mobility issues.

Key Stats About Incontinence

According to Ian Milsom, Gothenburg Continence Research Center, the data and research around incontinence points to the following facts and trends:

  • If people with UI formed a country, it would be the third largest in the world!
  • In women with UI, stress incontinence is the most common form of incontinence (50%)
  • Mixed incontinence comes in at 17% and UI at 10%
  • Risk factors for incontinence include:
    • Age
    • Weight
    • Gender
    • Pregnancy and childbirth
    • Hysterectomy
    • Diabetes
    • Dementia
  • 50% of people who suffer with urinary incontinence do not seek help

While it may shock you to learn that so many people live with incontinence without seeking help, it’s actually not surprising:

  • Many ‘accept’ incontinence as a reality of aging and don’t think there’s anything to be done about the problem.
  • Some are embarrassed or ashamed to speak to a doctor about their problems with incontinence.
  • Some believe there are no real treatment options for incontinence. While this is untrue, it is also true that it’s not usually a ‘silver bullet’ solution. You may need a combination of treatments and to do exercises to improve your pelvic floor muscles to see an effect.
  • People find they manage incontinence with changes  to their lifestyle and non-medical products, like leakproof underwear

Making positive changes to your lifestyle and trying products aimed at managing incontinence (like leakproof underwear) are great steps to give you back a sense of confidence and control.

However, it's still a good idea to talk to your doctor about the problem, whether it’s at a regular checkup or a special visit. In general, your doctor should know everything going on with your body and they’ll want to judge the cause of your incontinence based on your medical records and their own examination.

Incontinence can also occasionally be a symptom of some larger concerns, so your healthcare advisor may want to check to rule some things out. They’ll also help you understand the type of incontinence you’re experiencing and discuss lifestyle changes and treatment options.

How to Talk to Your Doctor About Incontinence

We get it: Talking about your most intimate bodily functions isn’t always easy. But trust us, doctors are not fazed by these things.

If it helps you prepare for seeking medical advice, write down your questions and make some notes to anticipate the questions they may ask (we listed some questions in this article).

While experiencing incontinence can cause stress and embarrassment, talking about it with your healthcare professional should not!