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Urinary incontinence, or bladder leakage that occurs when you laugh, sneeze or exercise, is common among women. But you don't have to live with it.
One in four women have experienced a considerable health problem that almost no one is talking about. It's called stress-related urinary incontinence, or stress incontinence, and it involves the untimely loss of urine when you cough, sneeze, laugh, jump, have sex or lift something heavy. The condition has nothing to do with stress; rather, it's about those little movements that put pressure on the bladder. When we're young, our pelvic floor muscles (those hidden muscles you strengthen through Kegel exercises) are strong enough to support the bladder and the urethra, but throughout life, a number of things can contribute to the weakening of those muscles.
Dr. Jennifer Berman, urologist and co-host of the TV show The Doctors, told us about the problem and how to address it. Women no longer have to suffer in silence. There are ways to get help.
What raises your risk?
Unfortunately, many of the risk factors come from just being a woman. "Having an XX chromosome puts you at risk," says Dr. Berman, explaining that, as women get older, changing hormones affect the support structures in the pelvic floor muscles. But long before menopause, many women may suffer from stress incontinence due to another life event: childbirth. "Carrying a baby and delivering a baby causes injury and trauma to the pelvic floor," says Dr. Berman. "And the more babies you have, the higher the risk." Obesity is another risk factor, but you don't have to be overweight to experience stress incontinence.
What can you do to prevent the problem?
Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is a good way to reduce your risk for urinary incontinence, but that alone isn't enough—you need to focus on exercising the muscles that support your pelvic floor. Kegels have been heralded as a means to a better sex life, but they have a much greater importance: Those muscles support our internal organs. Unfortunately, many of us aren't doing Kegels properly. To learn the best ways to strengthen those key muscles, check out our pelvic floor workout. A pelvic floor physiotherapist can also help you at key times, such as before, during and after pregnancy.
What can you do to treat stress incontinence?
If you already experience stress incontinence—maybe you pee a little when you laugh or run—talk to a urologist. "Any time there is a change in urinary function or control, it's important to speak to your health care provider," says Dr. Berman. She says pelvic floor therapy may not be enough to reverse the problem, but your doctor could recommend surgery. A simple operation can provide a structure to support the urethra to stop the unexpected leaks of urine. Or, if you aren't sure you want surgery, a new product, Poise Impressa Bladder Supports, can offer a similar but temporary solution. You simply insert the tampon-like product for temporary support under the bladder and urethra. "Some women want to try something else before surgery," says Dr. Berman. "There are risk factors associated with surgery. So if a woman is only experiencing leakage when she plays tennis, for example, she may say, ‘Do I really want to have surgery for this?'"
Why is it so important to seek a solution?
Beyond the shame and inconvenience that many women experience when they suffer from incontinence, the problem can also get in the way of other things that impact your health. For example, women often avoid sex or exercise because they're worried about leaking. "Incontinence will affect overall satisfaction with life," says Dr. Berman.
Learn about other ways to deal with urinary incontinence.