Urinary incontinence can be difficult to live with. It can be an embarrassing and sometimes painful condition that can affect a patient’s quality of life. Luckily, many types of urinary incontinence can be treated, if not cured, but other times, products to help you deal with the condition day to day are available to make your life a little easier. Most of the time, you might find that your incontinence responds well to medication or complementary therapies.
What is urinary incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is also known as the loss of bladder control and is classified by the unintentional passing of urine. It affects both males and females, but is more often diagnosed in women.
There are actually several types of urinary incontinence that you might experience, all classified by different symptoms and situations.
- Stress incontinence: This is when urine leaks when the bladder is under pressure, for example, when laughing, sneezing or coughing. This is a very common type of urinary incontinence, and often happens as you get older.
- Urge incontinence: urine leaks as you feel a sudden intense urge to pee
- Overflow incontinence: if you’re unable to fully empty your bladder, you might experience frequent leakage which is classified as overflow incontinence
- Total incontinence: This happens when your bladder isn’t able to store any urine, and you end up leaking frequently or even constantly
There’s no debate around the fact that urinary incontinence can be an incredibly embarrassing condition, but it’s something that can be helped, if not completely cured. Sometimes, you may not know that you need to pass urine, and you might only notice signs of urinary incontinence if you notice damp or wet underwear. In some cases, you may only realise that you’re struggling with urinary incontinence if you notice a smell (if urine has been allowed to dry). Because of the embarrassment a condition like this can bring, you may also struggle with your self-esteem and mental health, which is just one reason why it’s important to seek treatment as soon as you can.
What causes urinary incontinence?
There are several factors that contribute to the risk of developing urinary incontinence, and some of them are to be expected, for example, your risk increases with age, but it’s good to be aware of any other factors that might play a part in your bladder health.
- Vaginal birth
- Family history of incontinence
- Increasing age
- Excessive consumption of alcohol or caffeine
- Poor fluid intake
- Condition affecting the lower urinary tract (e.g: UTI)
- Certain medications
- Damage during childbirth
- Damage to bladder during surgery
- Connective tissue disorders
- Enlarged prostate gland (men)
- Bladder stones
- Neurological conditions
- Bladder fistula
- Spinal cord injury
With many of the factors listed above, urinary incontinence isn’t a major cause for concern. For example, some degree of incontinence may be expected in pregnancy, whilst taking certain medicines, and as you get older, but in some cases, urinary incontinence can be a red-flag symptom for a more serious condition.
Mentioned in the causes of incontinence is spinal cord injury. If you’re experiencing unintentional passing of urine alongside symptoms such as saddle numbness, bilateral pain, leg numbness, and back pain, you should seek emergency treatment as soon as possible, as this could indicate a rare but very serious spinal cord injury; Cauda Equina Syndrome. This condition has the potential to leave you permanently paralysed, so if you experience urinary incontinence alongside any of the aforementioned symptoms, the best advice is to ring 999.
Treatment for urinary incontinence
Luckily, there are treatments available to easy the symptoms of urinary incontinence, even if the condition itself can’t be cured.
In some instances, lifestyle changes and various exercises can help to alleviate the symptoms. For example, if you’re obese and your incontinence is caused by this, it might help to lose weight, reducing the pressure on your bladder. Pelvic floor exercises and bladder training can also help to reduce the symptoms of incontinence, and in some cases, completely improve the condition.
For women, one method of improving incontinence is to place specially-designed kegel balls inside the vagina. These balls are weighted, and must be held in place by your muscles alone. This pelvic floor exercise can improve your bladder control and muscle tone.
If your incontinence doesn’t respond to the methods mentioned above, there are a range of medications that your GP can prescribe. The type of incontinence that you experience may dictate which medication/s you can take, but some of the more common ones include:
- Duloxetine: this increases the muscle tone in the urethra and keps to keep it closed, ultimately stopping or at least reducing the amount of unintentional urine leakage.
- Antimuscarinics: these medicines reduce the amount of bladder muscle spasms.
- Mirabegron: causes the bladder muscle to relax, allowing it to fill with urine. This is one of the most appropriate treatments for people who are experiencing overactive bladder syndrome.
In some more severe cases, surgery may be suggested in order to fix the issue causing incontinence, but sometimes not even surgery can help. There are also products that you can buy (or in some cases, be prescribed) to help you cope with the symptoms, even if your condition can’t be treated. Examples include the use of incontinence pads and self-catheterisation.
What happens if my incontinence goes untreated?
Untreated incontinence can cause several issues. For example, if you’re sitting in your own urine for a while, you risk becoming sore around your genital area, possibly creating an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. You also risk recurring UTIs, especially If you aren’t able to fully empty your bladder.
Whilst incontinence can be embarrassing to talk about, it’s important that you get advice as soon as you can In order to have the best chance at treatment.