Incontinence is a person's inability to control when he or she passes urine * or feces * .

What Is Incontinence?

Older men and women, as well as some children, find they cannot wait when they have to go to the bathroom. Usually, incontinence (in-KONti-nens) involves urinating at the wrong time, or it can mean having a bowel movement before reaching a bathroom. Although incontinence occurs mostly in older men and women and younger children, it can occur in people of all ages.

Sometimes incontinence occurs as a small amount of urine is released when a person strains, such as with coughing or laughing too hard. In other instances, it occurs only when the bladder is too full.

What Causes Incontinence?

There are many causes for incontinence. Urinary tract infections, cancer, diabetes, stroke, Parkinson's disease * * are some of the illnesses that can cause incontinence. Several problems in the brain or spinal cord can lead to urine and bowel incontinence. Surprisingly, severe constipation can cause bowel incontinence. Withholding stool (feces) can cause a hardened plug of stool to block the rectum. This plug irritates the lining of the rectum and causes watery stool to leak out from around the hardened plug.

Strengthening the pelvic floor muscles by performing Kegel exercises helps to alleviate stress incontinence in women. Contract the pelvic floor muscles as if stopping an imaginary flow of urine. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat.

Strengthening the pelvic floor muscles by performing Kegel exercises helps to alleviate stress incontinence in women. Contract the pelvic floor muscles as if stopping an imaginary flow of urine. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat.
Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group. © 2016 Cengage Learning®

Kegel exercise, also known as pelvic floor exercise, entails the repeated contracting and releasing of the muscles of the pelvic floor. Reproducing this type of muscle action can strengthen the Kegel muscles to reduce urinary or stress incontinence. An American gynecologist, Arnold Henry Kegel, first described the exercises in 1948.

The exercises are also used in pregnancy to prepare for childbirth, and have been found to help with erectile dysfunction.

Urinary incontinence affects older women more than it affects men. One reason is that changes in a woman's hormone levels later in life can weaken muscles that control urination. Women who have had children may also experience more incidents of incontinence because the muscles that are stretched during pregnancy and childbirth may become weakened.

Some over-the-counter cold medicines as well as some prescription drugs for conditions such as high blood pressure can cause incontinence.

How Is Incontinence Treated?

Treatments for urinary incontinence involve avoiding liquids and caffeinated drinks such as coffee near bedtime and going to the bathroom at regular intervals. Men and women both can perform Kegel musclestrengthening exercises that help control urine release. Some adults wear pads to absorb small amounts of urine that leak. Medications and surgery are helpful for some people.

The treatment for bowel incontinence depends on the cause. If the cause is chronic constipation, treatment involves adding fiber to the diet and correcting the constipation. Other causes may require surgery.

See also Bed-wetting (Enuresis)


Books and Articles

Gorina, Y., S. Schappert, A. Bercovitz, et al. “Prevalence of Incontinence among Older Americans.” National Center for Health Statistics. Vital and Health Statistics 3, no. 36 (June 2014). (accessed July 20, 2015).


Medline Plus. “Pelvic Floor Muscle Training Exercises.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (accessed July 20, 2015). . “Yoga, Kegel Exercises, Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy.” North American Menopause Society. (accessed July 20, 2015).


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 9000 Rockville Pk., Bethesda, MD 20892-2560. Telephone: 301-496-3583. Website: (accessed March 28, 2016).

* urine is the liquid waste material secreted by the kidneys and removed from the body through the urinary tract.

* feces (FEE-seez) is the excreted waste from the gastrointestinal tract.

* Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the nervous system that causes shaking, rigid muscles, slow movements, and poor balance.

* Alzheimer's (ALTS-hy-merz) disease is a condition that leads to gradually worsening loss of mental abilities, including memory, judgment, and abstract thinking, as well as changes in personality.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)