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What Are The 4 Types Of Incontinence?

May 28, 2024

What Are The 4 Types Of Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is a condition characterized by the involuntary leakage of urine. It can affect people of all ages, but it is more common in older adults and women. Understanding the different types of urinary incontinence can help in seeking appropriate treatment and management strategies. This article will explore the four main types of urinary incontinence: stress incontinence, urgency incontinence, overflow incontinence, and functional incontinence.

Key Takeaways

  • There are four main types of urinary incontinence: stress, urgency, overflow, and functional incontinence.
  • Stress incontinence occurs when physical activity or exertion causes urine leakage.
  • Urgency incontinence is characterized by a sudden, intense urge to urinate, often leading to involuntary leakage.
  • Overflow incontinence happens when the bladder cannot empty completely, causing frequent dribbling of urine.
  • Functional incontinence is due to physical or cognitive impairments that prevent one from reaching the bathroom in time.

1. Stress Incontinence

Stress incontinence occurs when the urethral sphincter, the pelvic floor muscles, or both these structures have been weakened or damaged and cannot dependably hold in urine. Stress incontinence is when the pressure in your bladder is greater than the strength of your urethra’s ability to stay closed. So when your bladder experiences pressure, such as when you laugh or cough, it pushes urine out. This often happens because the pelvic muscles are weak or damaged, or the urethral sphincter is damaged. Stress incontinence can affect men, but is more common in women, with 1 in 3 women experiencing bladder leaks in the UK.


Stress incontinence is divided into two subtypes. In urethral hypermobility, the bladder and urethra shift downward when abdominal pressure rises, and there is no hammock-like support for the urethra to be compressed against to keep it closed. In intrinsic sphincter deficiency, problems in the urinary sphincter interfere with full closure.


  • Leakage of urine during exercise, coughing, sneezing, laughing, lifting heavy objects, or performing other body movements that put pressure on the bladder.
  • Frequent need to urinate, especially during physical activities.

Risk Factors

  • Postpartum for women: Childbirth can weaken the pelvic floor muscles.
  • Aging: Muscle tone decreases with age.
  • Obesity: Excess weight increases abdominal pressure.
  • Previous pelvic surgery: Can damage the pelvic floor muscles or nerves.

Management and Treatment

  • Pelvic floor exercises: Strengthen the pelvic muscles.
  • Lifestyle changes: Weight loss and dietary adjustments.
  • Medical interventions: Medications or surgery may be necessary in severe cases.


2. Urgency Incontinence

Urgency incontinence, also known as an overactive bladder, is characterized by a sudden, intense urge to urinate followed by an involuntary loss of urine. This condition often requires frequent trips to the toilet, including throughout the night. Urgency incontinence can significantly impact one's quality of life, making it essential to understand its causes and management strategies.

Causes of Urgency Incontinence

Urgency incontinence can be caused by various factors, including minor conditions such as infections or more severe conditions like neurological disorders or diabetes. The primary mechanism involves the detrusor muscle in the bladder wall, which contracts too often, signaling a need to urinate even when the bladder is not full.

Symptoms of Urgency Incontinence

Common symptoms of urgency incontinence include:

  • A sudden and intense need to urinate
  • Frequent urination, including multiple trips to the toilet at night

Management Strategies

Managing urgency incontinence often involves a combination of lifestyle changes, medical treatments, and sometimes surgical interventions. Behavioral therapies, such as bladder training and pelvic floor exercises, can be effective. Medications that relax the bladder muscle may also be prescribed. 

When to Seek Medical Advice

It is crucial to seek medical advice if you experience symptoms of urgency incontinence, as it may indicate underlying health issues that require attention. Early diagnosis and treatment can help manage the condition more effectively. 

3. Overflow Incontinence

Overflow incontinence occurs when the bladder fills up as normal, but a blockage prevents it from emptying properly. This blockage causes urine to build up inside the bladder, leading to increased pressure and potential leaks. Overflow incontinence may be treated with surgery or by changing medications that affect the bladder's ability to empty.

Symptoms of Overflow Incontinence

  • A sudden need to pee
  • Feeling as though the bladder is full, even after using the toilet
  • Leaking urine while sleeping
  • The flow of urine stops and starts during urination
  • Difficulty urinating even when the need is present

Causes of Overflow Incontinence

Overflow incontinence can be caused by several factors, including:

  1. Blockages in the urinary tract
  2. Weak bladder muscles
  3. Nerve damage
  4. Certain medications


4. Functional Incontinence

Functional incontinence occurs when an individual’s urinary tract is functioning properly, but other illnesses or disabilities prevent them from staying dry. This type of incontinence is often associated with physical, intellectual, or environmental issues. For instance, conditions such as arthritis, cerebral palsy, or dementia can hinder a person's ability to reach the toilet in time. Medications, dementia, or mental illness can decrease awareness of the need to find a toilet.


Understanding the four main types of urinary incontinence—stress, urgency, overflow, and functional—is crucial for both patients and healthcare providers. Each type has distinct characteristics and underlying causes, necessitating tailored treatment approaches. Effective management often involves a combination of behavioral therapies, medications, nerve stimulation, and sometimes surgical interventions. By recognizing the specific type of incontinence, appropriate and effective treatment plans can be developed, significantly improving the quality of life for those affected.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 4 main types of urinary incontinence?

There are four main types of urinary incontinence: stress incontinence, urgency incontinence, overflow incontinence, and functional incontinence.

What is stress incontinence?

Stress incontinence is the leaking of small amounts of urine during activities that put pressure on the bladder, such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, walking, or lifting.

What is urgency incontinence?

Urgency incontinence is the involuntary loss of urine associated with a sudden and strong need to urinate. It can be caused by conditions such as urinary tract infections or bladder irritants.

What is overflow incontinence?

Overflow incontinence occurs when the bladder cannot empty completely, leading to frequent urine loss or a continual dribble of urine.

What is functional incontinence?

Functional incontinence happens when a person is unable to reach the toilet in time due to physical limitations, such as mobility issues or cognitive impairments.

What treatments are available for urinary incontinence?

Treatments for urinary incontinence include behavioral therapies, medications, nerve stimulation, and surgery, depending on the type and severity of the condition.

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