One in four Australian adults are incontinent, 80 per cent of them women. Half of these women are aged 50 and under. A recent national survey of 1000 women with bladder leakage found that nearly three quarters “laughed it off” when talking to other women about the issue. Alarmingly, 85 per cent of the women who laughed it off mistakenly attributed their bladder leakage to ageing or having children, with 45 per cent not bothering to seek treatment because they didn’t consider it a serious enough health issue.
The Continence Foundation of Australia’s new campaign, Incontinence: no laughing matter, urges Australians to take incontinence seriously and to seek help to overcome the issue. Incontinence is one of the nation’s biggest health burdens, affecting 4.8 million adult Australians. It is more prevalent than arthritis (3.1 million), anxiety disorders (2.3 million) and asthma (2 million), and predicted to reach 6.5 million by 2030.
Have you had a baby? Surgery within the pelvic region? A history of frequent straining to poo? Chronic cough? Are you overweight? Participate in regular heavy lifting? Post-menopausal? These are amongst known risk factors linked to poor pelvic health.
During Continence Week, we hope to stimulate much needed attention to the previously stigmatised issues of incontinence which can cause leakage of urine with coughing, sneezing, laughing or high impact exercise, more frequent and/or urgent need to wee, increased night toilet visits, recurrent urinary tract infections, constipation and/or straining to poo, bowel urgency and/or loss of bowel control, painful sex, pain in the pelvic region and a sensation of heaviness or dragging, or awareness of a lump or bulge in the vaginal region.
The good news about incontinence is that the large majority of these pelvic health conditions can be prevented, cured, or at the very least better managed. Simple lifestyle changes can make a significant difference in many cases – adequate fluid intake, a healthy diet, managing any constipation and getting active is a good start. Anything that places additional stress on the pelvic floor should be addressed where possible, including modification of heavy lifting and good medical management of respiratory conditions and hay fever.
The pelvic floor collectively refers to the pelvic floor muscles and the surrounding connective tissues that sit at the base of our bony pelvis. The pelvic floor serves to keep these organs in place, control our wee, poo and wind and play a vital role in sexual function. Pelvic floor exercises can be performed to reduce your chance of developing incontinence.
As a guide, you can attempt to squeeze your pelvic floor muscles by imagining ‘stopping the flow’ of urine, or trying to stop wind passing from the back passage. With each squeeze, you should also aim to lift up inside the vagina. The length of each squeeze will depend on your individual strength – aim for three seconds as start. Following each squeeze, you should feel a complete relaxation or ‘letting go’ of the muscles. Throughout each contraction, ensure you are not holding your breath or squeezing your butt or inner thigh muscles – the idea is that from the outside, no one should know what you are up to down there. Aim to repeat as many times as you can, up to a maximum of 12 squeezes. Ideally, these exercises form part of a daily and lifelong routine, much the same as brushing your teeth. These exercises are ones we must do for life. We pass through different life-stages with hormonal changes and the effects of ageing taking their toll on our continence state (whether we are having urinary leakage episodes or not).
To find out how to Laugh Without Leaking, go to continence.org.au or call the free National Continence Helpline 1800 33 00 66.