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Incontinence Advice

Understanding functional incontinence: causes and treatments

Anyone living with incontinence knows just how embarrassing, uncomfortable, and frustrating it can be. Functional incontinence, the inability to make it to the toilet when you need to go, can add to the stress. Read ahead to learn all you need to know about functional incontinence.

Couple Walking In A Field

What is functional incontinence?

Functional incontinence is a type of urinary incontinence that can affect people with cognitive impairment or mobility difficulties. Despite being aware of the need to go to the toilet and urinate, for certain reasons they cannot get to the toilet in time.

This can result in a leaking urine or fully emptying the bladder. This condition not only causes embarrassment for the person, but can also lead to irritated skin and discomfort. 

Simple steps to avoid functional incontinence

Underneath are some easy-to-follow tips to help with functional incontinence. By making a few lifestyle changes and being proactive, you can reduce the risk of accidental bladder leakages.


  1. Daily pelvic floor exercises 
    Pelvic floor exercises can help to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles and prevent incontinence.  Using these exercises, you might be able to hold your urine in for longer periods of time. Most people need to practice these exercises for at least 3 months before they notice a difference.

  2. Quitting smoking 
    People who smoke are likely to cough more than others, and this increases your chances of bladder leakages. Coughing strains your pelvic floor muscles, weakening them over time. Quitting smoking not only improves your overall health but also reduces the risk of bladder leakages. We recommend consulting with a pharmacist or your GP for guidance on quitting smoking.

  3. Assess your exercise routine 
    Despite experiencing functional incontinence, many people still take part in exercise. While going to the gym is generally beneficial, it's important to avoid high-impact exercises that can exert additional pressure on the pelvic floor muscles and potentially increase the risk of bladder leakages.  Sit-ups should also be avoided as they can strain these muscles further.

    Instead, focus on exercises like pilates and yoga which can be highly effective in strengthening the pelvic floor. These activities are known to promote better control in people managing incontinence.

    Looking for inspiration on how to stay active while managing incontinence? Discover our recommended tips and strategies by clicking here.

  4. Avoid lifting heavy objects 
    Make sure that you cross weightlifting off of your gym routine, and avoid lifting heavy objects around the house.
    You can read more about weightlifting and incontinence, we have a comprehensive article available. You can find it here.

  5. Get down to a healthy weight
    Being overweight can contribute to functional incontinence. Obesity weakens your pelvic floor muscles, and the pressure of fat tissue on the bladder can cause leakages. In the most extreme cases, a person’s weight can prevent them from getting to the toilet in time.

  6. Prevent and treat constipation
    When you strain to empty your bowels, it weakens your pelvic floor muscles and will make urine leakage worse in the long run. If you find that you are suffering from constipation on a regular basis, add more fibre to your diet, drink plenty of fluids and ensure you are getting enough exercise.

  7. Say ‘no’ to caffeine
    Caffeine irritates and stimulates the bladder, making any kind of incontinence worse. Switch to decaffeinated coffees or teas, and drink more water.

  8. Cut down on alcohol
    Similar to caffeine, alcohol is a diuretic. This means that it will cause you to urinate more often. If you suffer from functional incontinence, this means more trips to the toilet, and more chances for an accident.
    We explain how alcohol dehydration can affect your bladder and bowel function in this article.

  9. Drink plenty of water
    People suffering from functional incontinence are often worried about drinking too much water, as they worry about using the toilet too often.  But drinking too little can cause problems.  The recommended guidance is to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day keeps your body hydrated and prevents urine from becoming too concentrated.

What causes functional incontinence?

Functional incontinence can be caused by a number of different factors, with the most common cause being the inability to reach the toilet in time. This may be due to problems removing clothing quickly enough, transferring from a wheelchair to the toilet, or mobility problems which hinder walking. There are some commonly associated illnesses and conditions of functional incontinence which include:

  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis or severe back pain
  • Neurological problems, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease

Cognitive issues can also play a significant role in functional incontinence. For example, people with Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia may struggle to plan or recognize the need for the toilet. Even when they recognize the urge to urinate, they might be unable to find the toilet in time.

Although modifications can be made to a person's home to help them with easier and quicker access to the toilet, functional incontinence remains challenging to manage outside the home. Public toilet facilities may not always be accessible or designed for easy use by individuals with disabilities.

When should you seek medical advice?

You should always seek medical advice when you first start noticing any signs of bladder weakness or incontinence. If you find yourself unable to reach the toilet in time, it's essential to consult your GP for assistance and guidance. 

Diagnosis of functional incontinence

When you visit a doctor about your symptoms, they will thoroughly assess your medical history. They will likely ask you questions about any medications you take and illnesses that you are suffering from. They will also want to know about your general physical health. 

These topics include:

  • Diet
  • Past or present illnesses
  • Family medical history
  • Hydration
  • Exercise routine
  • Your general mobility 

While you are in the GP’s office, they might do some routine and simple tests, including a urinalysis, in which they screen your urine for abnormalities. This might be done in the surgery, or you might be sent to an off-site lab. Additional tests could include pelvic floor strength tests, bladder strength tests, and checking for any abnormalities in your urinary tract.  

Treatments for functional incontinence

No matter what kind of treatment is recommended, ensure that you have reliable incontinence products to regain your confidence and independence while you seek treatments to get the problem under control. 

For functional incontinence, the most important factor is the underlying cause. If you can improve mobility, clearly signpost where the toilets are for example, you may be able to reduce instances of incontinence. 

Behavioural treatments designed to help other forms of incontinence might also be helpful for reducing accidents. Your doctor might suggest the following treatments and strategies: 

  • Scheduled urination 
    You or your carer can set a schedule for your trips to the toilet. This is ideal for preventing the need to get to the toilet in a hurry. You can relax and take your time, assured in the knowledge that you will make it in time.  

    For people with cognitive impairment or dementia, a person might not recognise that they need the toilet, and so a schedule can help prompt them to go before an accident happens. 

  • Bladder training 
    This is a time-honoured technique that can lengthen the time between your trips to the toilet. Start by going to the toilet and attempting to urinate every two hours. If you feel like you need to go again before the next 2 hours are up, stand still and contract your pelvic floor muscles. Concentrate on reducing your urge to urinate. Once it is under control, make your way to the toilet.  

    Work on staying dry and avoiding accidents for 3 full days. Once you reach this goal, slowly increase the intervals between using the toilet, until you can make it for three to four hours without feeling the urge to urinate.
  • Pelvic floor exercises 
    Pelvic floor exercises are designed to strengthen the series of muscles that support and control the bladder and urethra and can be done by men and women. 

Tackling functional incontinence

By using the techniques mentioned, you can reduce the risk of functional incontinence and potentially eliminate the problem. Remember, you don't have to suffer in silence. If you experience recurring episodes of incontinence, seek help from a medical professional as soon as possible.

Additionally, while following a treatment plan, you can rely on MoliCare incontinence products for added support. Our range of high-quality products is designed to provide comfort, security, and reliable protection during your journey towards managing incontinence.