Bladder shame is stopping Brits seeking help for incontinence

Image of a woman suffering from incontinence. (Getty Images)
Women are too self-conscious to seek help for incontinence. (Getty Images)

Brits are feeling too self-conscious to seek help for incontinence, choosing instead to ignore the problem in the hope it will go away.

New research has revealed a staggering 84% of us are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to concern over certain health conditions, refusing to go to the doctor in case we are told something we don't want to hear.

Among those health issues Brits feel too embarrassed to talk about is urinary incontinence, with only around half (53%) of sufferers saying they would feel comfortable talking to their doctor about the common issue and two thirds (66%) saying they feel too ashamed to tell their family and friends about the problem.

But not addressing the issue simply creates further problems, with 41% admitting to feeling frightened, ashamed (36%) and lonely (24%) about keeping their medical issues under wraps.

More worryingly, more than a third (34%) say they have made the problem worse by not seeking medical treatment.

To help tackle the issue, bladder leak protection brand, TENA, the company who compiled the poll, has launched its End Bladder Shame campaign in an effort to normalise conversation around common medical issues.

Read more: Female incontinence taboo tackled with 'peeing' billboard advert (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

Ashley James has been open about her own incontinence issues. (Getty Images)
Ashley James has been open about her own incontinence issues. (Getty Images)

Hoping to help break down the stigma surrounding bladder leakage, Ashley James, former Made in Chelsea star and DJ, says: “Incontinence shouldn't be a taboo subject as it's so normal and so common. Especially after having children as our pelvic floor recovers.

"As a mum of two, I can unashamedly admit that I’ve experienced incontinence. When it first happened, it really filled me with a sense of embarrassment and shame. This is a completely normal reaction, but it shouldn't be that way. There's a real stigma around talking about incontinence, which is most definitely not normal.

"The more we talk about these things the more it helps others realise there is nothing to be ashamed of."

What is urinary incontinence?

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.

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.

Urge incontinence is usually the result of overactivity of the detrusor muscles, which control the bladder, the health service says.

Overflow incontinence is often caused by an obstruction or blockage in your bladder, which prevents it from emptying fully.

Total incontinence, on the other hand, may be caused by a problem with the bladder from birth, a spinal injury, or a small, tunnel like hole that can form between the bladder and a nearby area (fistula).

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.

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There are some simple treatments for incontinence. (Getty Images)
There are some simple treatments for incontinence. (Getty Images)

Read more: Lack of public toilets means anxiety for a third of women (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

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.

Watch: UK woman with neurological disorder forced to wet herself in River Island

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

  • keeping fit, paying particular attention to strengthening your pelvic floor muscles.

"75% of Brits believe age is the main reason for incontinence, but there’s actually a whole host of reasons someone could be experiencing the problem, some of which are entirely avoidable with a few lifestyle changes," explains TV doctor Zoe Williams.

"Losing weight, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol and completing pelvic floor exercises, are all great ways to ease symptoms."