What Is Incontinence? What You Need to Know

A number of misconceptions surround incontinence. This is not surprising, because it’s a topic that embarrasses many people. However, to cope with the condition effectively, it’s important to understand 1) what is incontinence, and 2) the different types of incontinence.

What is Incontinence?

If you or someone you know is suffering from incontinence then the first question you may wonder is, “what is incontinence?” Caring.com defines incontinence as “the loss of bladder or bowel control, causing leakage.” Whether urinary or fecal in nature, incontinence is more common among women and the elderly than other demographic groups. It’s also more pervasive than you might expect, with up to 50% of adults experiencing incontinence at some point.

Urinary Incontinence

Urinary incontinence is more common than fecal incontinence, and it ranges in severity from minor leaks to major accidents. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the two most common types of urinary incontinence are 1) stress incontinence, and 2) urge incontinence. Stress incontinence, which causes leaks from pressure caused by laughing, coughing, sneezing or lifting, stems from weak bladder muscles. Urge incontinence, on the other hand, is caused by overactive bladder muscles (In fact, the condition is sometimes referred to as “overactive bladder”). People who suffer urge incontinence feel the need to urinate even if their bladders are not full. NIH also notes that urinary incontinence may stem from prostate problems or nerve damage.

Fecal Incontinence

As with urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence ranges in symptoms and severity. There are two main types: 1) urge incontinence, in which people feel the need to defecate but can’t reach the toilet in time, and 2) passive incontinence, in which people feel no urge to defecate and end up soiling themselves. Again, leakage can be slight or significant.

What You Need to Know

Perhaps the greatest misconception about incontinence is that it is an inevitable byproduct of aging. It is not. Keep in mind:

  • Incontinence may be a symptom of a treatable condition. Talk to your doctor, or your loved one’s doctor, to determine the cause and address the problem accordingly. Effective treatments abound, and they range from medicine to surgery to physical exercises.
  • It is easier than ever to cope with incontinence. The products on the market today are a far cry from diapers. For example, there are washable panties and briefs that control odor and come in surprisingly fashionable styles. There are waterproof underpads and bed pads to protect chairs, wheelchairs, bedding and mattresses. With these products available, there is no need to let incontinence hold you or your loved one back.

Finally, remember that many people experience incontinence, so lose the embarrassment. Talk to your doctors or caregivers about it as you would any other medical issue. The more you and they know about the type of incontinence in question, the better all of you can work together to manage it.