If you suffer from urinary incontinence, you're not alone - here's what you need to know about the different types and how to strengthen your pelvic floor.
Half of all women will experience urinary incontinence at some point in their lives and it affects millions of women every day.
Sadly only one in five of us will visit our GP for help, choosing to put up with a problem that can affect everything from your love life and confidence levels to how often you go out and how far you travel.
What’s the meaning of incontinence?
“There are different types of urinary incontinence – stress incontinence is by far the most usual kind, though urge incontinence can be a problem too and a lot of women have a mix of both after menopause,” says GP Dr Pixie McKenna
Symptoms: You leak urine when pressure on your bladder increases, for example, when you sneeze, laugh or exercise.
Causes: Often pregnancy and childbirth weaken a woman’s pelvic-floor muscles, and being overweight and smoking can also contribute.
Urge incontinence (overactive bladder)
Symptoms: You suddenly have an urgent need to pass water and may not get to the loo in time.
Causes: Damage to nerves in the bladder, caused by conditions such as stroke and diabetes, plus infections and some medicines.
Symptoms: You can’t empty your bladder fully and may dribble urine.
Causes: Constipation, certain medications and nerve damage can all be potential causes.
- We've tested the best incontinence pads and pants
Pelvic floor muscles
“The good news is it’s definitely never too late to treat urinary incontinence,” says Pixie. “The high numbers of incontinence pads sold suggest women are trying to cope by themselves – but there’s no need to put up with it.”
A few lifestyle changes, such as reducing the amount of caffeine you drink can help; caffeine is a diuretic and can increase the amount of urine your body produces. And extra weight can put pressure on your pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor is a set of muscles that sits like a hammock between your tailbone and pubic bone, lifting and holding your bladder, womb and bowel in place. If these muscles are weakened it could affect your bladder, bowel control and sex life. One in three women have problems caused by a weakened pelvic floor and strengthening yours could help you manage all the types of incontinence.
“Ideally we’d all have been doing pelvic-floor exercises to prevent it weakening in the first place,” says Pixie “But you can start them at any time.”
Repair your pelvic floor with exercise
- Pull in your pelvic-floor muscles (as though stopping a wee mid-stream).
- Hold for three seconds, then release for three, before tensing again.
- Start with ten and work up to 20, repeating three times a day.
“Some women find the exercises difficult to do and end up squeezing the wrong muscles – and it can also be hard to get into the habit,” says Pixie. That’s where devices can help (see our product panel right).
- We've tested the best pelvic floor trainers
For most, working the pelvic floor will help, but if not, there are medications your GP can prescribe. Further down the line, if you’re still not better, you may be referred to a gynaecologist who might carry out tests called urodynamics, to check how your body stores and releases urine. After that, surgery is an option, but the vast majority of women won’t need it – so don’t let fear of potential surgery put you off seeing your doctor.
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