Incontinence is a condition that is surprisingly common yet no one seems to talk about. If you are suffering from bladder problems then help is at hand!

What is incontinence?

Incontinence is an uncontrollable and involuntary passing of urine or faeces. About 3 million people in the UK suffer from urinary incontinence.

As a person ages, the muscle surrounding the bladder opening becomes less efficient, making urinary incontinence more likely. The muscle also takes a battering during pregnancy and childbirth, so older women who have had children are particularly prone to leakage – especially when they cough or sneeze.

Any form of incontinence can be emotionally distressing, and lead to soreness and infection.

 

Incontinence is surprisingly common but still tabboo

 

Symptoms of incontinence

There are four types of urinary incontinence and each type has different symptoms.

  • Stress incontinence is the release of small amounts of urine during coughing, laughter or physical exertion.
  • Urge incontinence is a desperate need to pass urine accompanied by the involuntary and uncontrollable emptying of the bladder.
  • Overflow incontinence causes intermittent dribbling. This happens when a person's bladder is always full as a result of an obstruction such as an enlarged prostate gland.
  • Total incontinence is rare, involving total loss of control due to a nervous system disorder.
  • Faecal incontinence often takes the form either of uncontrolled diarrhoea, or the passing of small lumps of faeces and faecal fluid.

Read more: Break the habit: I tend to ignore health problems

 

Causes of incontinence

The main cause of urinary stress incontinence is weak pelvic floor muscles. This can be the result of childbirth, or muscle thinning and loss of tone due to the menopause.

Other causes of urinary incontinence include:

Sometimes incontinence is caused by spinal cord injuries or defects – such as spina bifida.

A stroke can also interfere with nervous control by the brain and result in bedwetting.

Faecal incontinence may be the result of an extremely severe stomach upset. It can also happen as a side effect of constipation: a newly toilet-trained child or an elderly person can become so constipated that the rectum becomes inflamed and faecal fluids and solid matter are passed involuntarily.

Other causes include defects in the tone of the anal sphincter, dementia and paraplegia.

Read more: Remedies for constipation

 

Incontinence treatments

The most helpful thing you can do for urinary stress incontinence is to exercise your pelvic floor. This involves squeezing and holding the pelvic floor muscles for several seconds at a time – as if you were stopping the flow of urine mid-stream.

Other helpful measures might include going to the toilet only when the bladder feels full, and trying to keep your weight down as this puts a lot of pressure on the bladder muscles. Cutting out caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee may also help.

The best remedy for faecal incontinence caused by impacted faeces is a high-fibre diet. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grain foods will help to prevent the constipation that causes the condition.

Read more: The nutrients every woman should have in her diet

 

What a doctor may do

Your doctor can arrange tests to discover what is causing the incontinence. If you have urinary incontinence, a sample of your urine will be tested to make sure that there is no infection, that your bladder is not inflamed, and that you do not have undiagnosed diabetes mellitus.

Other tests may include ultrasound, X-ray and cystoscopy, in which the bladder is viewed through an instrument inserted via the urethra.

  • Drugs can be prescribed for conditions such as cystitis which irritate the bladder, or your doctor may recommend an operation to tighten the muscles around the urethra. Hormone replacement therapy
  • (HRT) can help women whose problem has been caused by the menopause.
  • Bedwetting may be eased by using desmopressin, an inhaled drug which temporarily switches off urine production at night. An enlarged prostate gland can be corrected with drugs to relax the bladder or shrink the gland, or by surgery.
  • Where it is not possible to restore normal bladder function, the sufferer can wear incontinence pants with special disposable pads to absorb the urine. Some people prefer to learn self-catheterization, which involves inserting a sterile tube via the urethra into the bladder in order to empty it four or five times a day. A man can wear a penile sheath connected by a tube to a portable urine bag.
  • If you suffer from faecal incontinence, you may simply need treatment for constipation or diarrhoea. If the problem is caused by poor muscle tone, a psychological technique called biofeedback may help you to regain control. In a person with dementia or a nervous disease, the problem might be tackled with laxatives and enemas.

If you need further advice contact The Continence Foundation 0845 345 0165 open between 9.30–1pm, Mon–Fri

For more health advice browse our A–Z

For stories, tips and laughs like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

Visit our Health Shop