Urinary incontinence is a very common problem that affects both men and women. Estimates suggest that more than 50 million people in the developed world are affected by urinary incontinence, although the true figure is difficult to determine as many people are reluctant to discuss their condition, even with their GP.
Severe cases of incontinence are sometimes treated with medication or surgery, but many people find that their condition improves with conservative treatment, including lifestyle changes, pelvic floor muscle exercises and bladder training. Here, we take a look at these conservative approaches, which can often greatly reduce or even remove the need for incontinence supplies .
There are several lifestyle changes that people can try to reduce the symptoms of incontinence, regardless of whether they suffer from urge incontinence – when leakage occurs when the person feels an intense urge to urinate – or stress incontinence, in which the pelvic floor muscles are too weak to prevent urination when the person coughs, laughs or sneezes.
One of the most common pieces of advice given to people with urinary incontinence is to reduce their intake of caffeine. The chemical increases the amount of urine produced by the body, thereby upping the frequency of visits to the toilet, and may also irritate the bladder. Alcohol consumption should also be reduced, as it stimulates the kidneys to produce more urine.
People with incontinence often assume that they should reduce their intake of water, but this can actually have a negative effect. Drinking too little fluid can affect the lower urinary tract and between six and eight glasses per day are recommended for sufferers.
Weight management may also be a useful approach. This can usually be achieved by eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and avoiding sugary, high-fat foods. In addition, regular exercise can help people to lose excess weight and low-impact activities, such as swimming and yoga, may be particularly beneficial for those with stress urinary incontinence.
Pelvic floor muscle exercises
One of the most effective ways to reduce urinary incontinence is to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, as weak or damaged muscles can cause leakage. The pelvic floor muscles surround the bladder and urethra and are used to control the flow of urine. Exercises can be useful for both stress and urge incontinence and can easily be performed at home.
In order to do the exercises, you should sit, stand or lie down with your legs slightly apart. The muscles can be located by imagining you are attempting to stop the flow of urine. Once you have identified the correct muscles, slowly tighten them as hard as possible and hold this squeeze for up to ten seconds before relaxing. This should be repeated approximately ten times, and the set of exercises should be performed three times a day. Results will not be seen immediately as it takes time to strengthen the muscles, but benefits should be noticeable within a few weeks.
People with incontinence are also usually advised to try bladder training, which aims to increase the amount of time between the initial urge to urinate and the actual passing of urine. A bladder training programme can also help to increase the amount of urine that can be held by the bladder and improve control over the need to urinate.
Bladder training is often combined with pelvic floor muscle exercises. In addition, patients are usually taught to delay urination when they feel the urge, starting with a five-minute wait and increasing the length of time by concentrating on breathing and relaxation techniques until the urge passes. Another method of bladder training is to set a schedule of visits to the bathroom, so that the patient uses the toilet at set times, regardless of whether or not they actually feel the urge to urinate.
Self-help techniques can be effective at easing urinary incontinence, but it can often be several weeks before the benefits become apparent. In the meantime, people can choose from a range of incontinence products to help manage their condition and reduce the risk of embarrassing leaks. Both disposable and washable incontinence pads and pants are available, while people with night-time incontinence may want to consider bed protection products, such as washable bed pads or a mattress cover .