Bladder leakage: the embarrassing health problem women aren't seeking help for

Marie Claire Dorking
·4-min read
Two thirds of women over 40 suffer from bladder leakage [Photo: Getty]
Two thirds of women over 40 suffer from bladder leakage [Photo: Getty]

Two-thirds of women over 40 are currently suffering from bladder leakage, with many claiming it has impacted their mental health, a study has found.

When you sneeze, when you cough, when you try out a trampoline...if you've ever experienced the odd down-there accident, it's nothing to be embarrassed about, in fact it’s probably time we talked about it, particularly as urinary incontinence is having such an effect on so many of us.

According to a recent poll nine in 10 sufferers over the age of 40 said the condition, which can be caused by childbirth and often develops as women get older, has had a “major impact” on their quality of life, with a tenth admitting it has lead to depression.

But despite being so common, women still aren’t opening up about the condition or seeking medical advice, with less than a third saying they’ve been to see a healthcare professional.

Three in five have even kept it secret from their partners, or haven't been “completely open” with them about the extent of their suffering.

The research, of 2,000 women aged 40 and over, commissioned by pelvic floor muscle trainer Pelviva, also revealed that the thoughts of 17 percent of sufferers are "dominated" by bladder leaks.

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Shockingly, one in 10 are so consumed by the condition they don't feel they're able to enjoy life fully as a result.

"Bladder leakage is a health issue which affects millions of women of all ages across the UK,” explains Julia Herbert, a consultant physiotherapist and clinical director for Pelviva.

"Pregnancy, childbirth, hormonal changes associated with the menopause and putting on weight are among the many causes of bladder leakage due to weakening pelvic floor muscles.

"These issues are more commonly experienced by older women, but it can just as easily affect someone in their 30s or even younger.

"Despite this high prevalence, bladder leakage is still seen as something of a taboo for women to discuss – they may find it hard to talk with their friends, family or even their partner, which is a perception we'd like to see change."

What is bladder leakage?

The NHS explains that urinary incontinence or bladder leakage is the unintentional passing of urine. It's a common problem thought to affect millions of people.

There are several types of urinary incontinence, including:

  • stress incontinence – when urine leaks out at times when your bladder is under pressure; for example, when you cough or laugh

  • urge incontinence – when urine leaks as you feel a sudden, intense urge to pass urine, or soon afterwards

  • overflow incontinence (chronic urinary retention) – when you're unable to fully empty your bladder, which causes frequent leaking

  • total incontinence – when your bladder can't store any urine at all, which causes you to pass urine constantly or have frequent leaking

It's also possible to have a mixture of both stress and urge urinary incontinence.

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Women aren't seeking help for incontinence [Photo: Getty]
Women aren't seeking help for incontinence [Photo: Getty]

What causes it?

According to the NHS, stress incontinence is usually the result of the weakening of or damage to the muscles used to prevent urination, such as the pelvic floor muscles and the urethral sphincter.

Certain things can increase the chances of bladder leakage developing, including pregnancy and vaginal birth, obesity, a family history of incontinence, increasing age – although incontinence is not an inevitable part of ageing.

The results of Pelviva’s survey found that seventy percent of sufferers have experienced bladder leakage when they have laughed, coughed or sneezed, while one in three has experienced symptoms when running, jumping or engaging in other physical activities.

In a bid to try and combat any leakage, almost a fifth (23%) of sufferers are careful with how much they drink and around a third (30%) ensure they plan toilet stops while travelling.

The condition has an impact on sufferers fashion choices too, with a third opting for absorbent pants and one in 20 opting for clothes that will hide the fact they may have had “an accident.”

How is bladder leakage treated?

The NHS recommends some measures for attempting to control the symptoms of bladder leakage including:

  • lifestyle changes – such as losing weight and cutting down on caffeine and alcohol

  • pelvic floor exercises – exercising your pelvic floor muscles by squeezing them, taught by a specialist

  • bladder training – where you learn ways to wait longer between needing to urinate and passing urine, guided by a specialist

“You may also benefit from the use of incontinence products such as absorbent pads and handheld urinals,” the NHS site continues.

If things still don’t improve your doctor may recommend medication and in extreme cases, surgery.

Though it isn’t always possible to prevent bladder leakage, the NHS does have some suggestions for reducing the chance of it developing including controlling your weight, avoiding or cutting down on alcohol and keeping fit, paying particular attention to strengthening your pelvic floor muscles.

"Pelvic floor exercises are a simple but often overlooked treatment for bladder leakage,” Herbert explains.