There are two common types of incontinence. If you have a little leakage when you laugh, sneeze, or exert yourself (lifting something or running hard, perhaps), that’s stress incontinence. Your urinary sphincter—the muscles that surround the urethra, which carries urine from the bladder—is weak and opens during “stress.” If you have unpredictable, overwhelming urges to urinate and realize you might not make it to the bathroom, you’ve got urge incontinence. This begins as a condition called overactive bladder, an intense and too-frequent need to urinate. With urge incontinence, problems arise when muscles around the bladder abruptly contract, and suddenly you have to go. Your sphincter and pelvic muscles might be able to stop the flow, but your bladder is insisting on relief.
More severe types of incontinence are called overflow incontinence and total incontinence. People with these conditions often need special devices to hold urine overflow.