For women especially, urinary incontinence, the inability to control the release of urine from your bladder, is a common and bothersome problem. A long road trip, impact exercise (jumping jacks) or a sneeze that sneaks up on you at the wrong place and wrong time can send you running for a dry change of clothes and a place to hide your embarrassment.
Don’t feel alone. Urinary incontinence affects 28 percent of women ages 30 to 39, 41 percent of those 40 to 49 and almost half of all women 50 and older, according to a University of Washington survey of more than 3,000 women.
The majority of women affected find it to be a noticeable problem during and after menopause and can thank a weakened bladder muscle and pelvic floor. Women of any age who are pregnant, have given birth, are obese or have had a hysterectomy are at risk as well for the same reasons.
It’s important to note that even though the bladder is capable of holding less urine with age, incontinence isn’t considered “normal” at any age, except during infancy. Outside of a medical diagnosis, the problem occurs more often due to stresses on the body as well as lifestyle habits.
A thorough medical evaluation can determine if your incontinence is due to a serious underlying condition. An urologist may offer myriad medications and suggest surgery if the problem is severe enough that it’s greatly impacting your personal life, work and social activities.
However, if your frequent toilet dashes and occasional leaks are due to an aging bladder muscle or pelvic floor weakness, as is the case for most women, you may be glad to find out that there are some things you can do yourself to limit its affect on your day-to-day activities.
Bladder training involves learning to delay urination after you get the urge to go. You may start by trying to hold off for 10 minutes every time you feel an urge to urinate. The goal is to lengthen the time between trips to the toilet until you’re urinating every two to four hours.
Bladder training may also involve double voiding. That means urinating, then waiting a few minutes and trying again. This exercise can help you learn to empty your bladder more completely to avoid overflow incontinence. In addition, bladder training may involve learning to control urges to urinate. When you feel the urge to urinate, you’re instructed to relax and breathe slowly and deeply or to distract yourself with an activity like reading or crossword puzzles.
Pelvic floor exercises (aka the ‘dreaded’ Kegel)
The Kegel exercise can be effective, but it takes practice to get it right — and then more practice to feel confident about doing it.
To do Kegel exercises, imagine you’re trying to stop your urine flow. Squeeze the muscles you would use to stop urinating and hold for a count of three; repeat. In general, if you sense a pulling-up feeling when you squeeze, you’re using the right muscles. Men can also benefit from the Kegel exercise. Kegel exercises may become easier after following the bladder-training exercise above.
Certain foods, drinks and even medications can contribute to urinary incontinence. Avoiding and being aware of “instigators” like the ones listed below can bring relief:
- Alcohol and caffeine: Both alcohol and caffeine act as bladder stimulants and as diuretics, which cause an urgent need to urinate. Avoid when possible, especially in social situations or in the evening hours if you are awakened during the night to make frequent trips to the restroom.
- Bladder irritation: Carbonated drinks, tea and coffee (with or without caffeine), artificial sweeteners, corn syrup and foods and beverages that are high in spice, sugar and acid, such as citrus and tomatoes, can irritate your bladder.
- Medications: Heart medications, blood pressure drugs, sedatives, muscle relaxants and other medications may contribute to bladder control problems. Talk to your doctor to see if it’s possible to switch to a less irritating medication.
- Overhydration: Drinking a lot of fluids, especially in a short period of time, increases the amount of urine your bladder has to deal with. It’s important to stay hydrated; so be sure to drink when thirsty, but don’t feel the need to overdo it.
- Constipation: The rectum is located near the bladder and shares many of the same nerves. Constipation can put pressure on the bladder and cause these nerves to be overactive and increase urinary frequency.
For different reasons, men can suffer from urinary incontinence, too, stemming from weak bladder muscles. The advice above can help ease these symptoms for both sexes.