Updated 21 June 2016

The types of incontinence

Rushing for the loo, but not quite making it? You could be suffering from a degree of urinary or faecal incontinence. Here’s more about these two conditions.


There are two types of incontinence: the one has to do with the leakage of urine from the bladder, and the other with leakage of stools from the bowel. The first is called urinary incontinence and the other faecal incontinence.

In both cases weakened muscles play a role. Incontinence of both kinds are not diseases in themselves, but could be signs and symptoms of many different other conditions. Not having bowel or bladder control is potentially very embarrassing, and can have a huge effect on the quality of someone’s life.

Read: Diagnosing incontinence

Urinary incontinence

There are several types of urinary incontinence. Here’s more:

Stress incontinence is something most people have experienced: leaking a bit of urine when having a coughing or sneezing fit. The increased pressure in the abdomen is caused by the coughing, sneezing, or even by laughter, and a bit of urine leaks out. The bladder neck, whose main purpose is to prevent urine leaking from the bladder, is weakened – sometimes just temporarily.

Urge incontinence is when you have a sudden desperate need to urinate, and you cannot suppress it. It is often caused by the bladder not being able to store enough urine. People with urge incontinence can often and urgently feel the need to urinate.

Overflow incontinence describes a condition where the bladder is always full to bursting. It is often likened to a dam that is overflowing. It is associated with difficulty urinating, but the kidneys nevertheless continue to produce urine. Either there is an obstruction at the bladder outlet, or a dysfunction of the bladder muscle.

Total incontinence describes a condition where someone has absolutely no control over urine leaking from their bladder on a continuous basis. It often affects elderly people, and more women than men are affected by it. In women, it is sometimes caused by an abnormal communication between the bladder and the vagina.

Fortunately there are various ways of treating the different types of urinary incontinence successfully. These include the strengthening of the pelvic floor muscles by means of exercise, medicines that prevent bladder spams, medicines that relax bladder neck muscles, the insertion of medical devices, and surgery aimed at keeping the bladder neck closed.

Faecal incontinence

When stool unexpectedly leaks from the rectum, it can cause great embarrassment to people. A lack of control over bowel movements, just like urinary incontinence, comes in different forms – sometimes just a little “accident” when passing wind, to a total loss of bowel control.

Read: Faecal incontinence affects 1 in 5 women

While some people realise they need to get to the toilet, but just cannot do so on time, others might not realise at all that they are about to have a bowel movement.

While this is not a life-threatening condition in itself, and is a symptom or sign of other conditions, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why faecal incontinence would be socially inhibiting to anyone who suffers from it.

But this is not necessarily a part of ageing, and, fortunately, can respond well to a variety of treatments.

Read more:

Risk factors for incontinence

New hope for people with faecal incontinence

Kids with ADHD prone to bowel problems


Ask the Expert

Incontinence Expert

Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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