Urinary Incontinence 101
From periods to fertility, to pregnancy, to menopause, many issues related to the female body are considered somewhat taboo to talk about openly, especially in the U.S. Urinary incontinence in women is no different.
Urinary incontinence (UI) is the formal name for involuntary bladder leaks. UI affects one in three women at some point in their lives. If you’ve peed your pants on more than one occasion due to laughing, sneezing, coughing, or physical activity, you’re likely experiencing urinary incontinence.
While UI is a common issue, it’s not a normal function of your body. Luckily, there’s a way to fix it. But first, we need to talk about it.
Seeking a fix first requires you to address that you have an issue. Admitting you pee your pants from time to time can feel embarrassing. However, the more we talk about it, the more comfortable we will be finding a solution early on, rather than hiding it and suffering through the discomfort.
We should be able to handle UI with dignity and confidence rather than hiding it because of shame. Your body is trying to tell you something, so let’s listen to it, talk to others about your experience, learn what to do, and break down another taboo.
Here’s more information on what urinary incontinence is, why it happens, and what you can do about it.
What is urinary incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control. UI is not a disease but can be a symptom of another health problem, often linked to a weak pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor is a set of muscles on the bottom of the pelvis that helps to support our pelvic organs—bladder, uterus, and rectum—to keep them in place. It also provides support for the bony pelvis itself and aids in sexual function.
As with other muscles in our body, the pelvic floor muscles need to:
- Contract – to hold in our pee or poop until we go to the bathroom
- Relax – to eliminate pee and poop
- Stretch – to allow a bowel movement to pass. It also stretches a significant amount when a woman has a vaginal delivery at birth
- Work with other muscles – to help give us solid core support
When the pelvic floor muscles become weak in one or more of these function areas, you may experience unwanted leaks, especially when there is pressure on the bladder.
What types of urinary incontinence are there?
There are two types of urinary incontinence: stress incontinence and urge incontinence.
Stress incontinence, also known as light bladder leaks, is the most common type of incontinence, especially for younger women. Stress incontinence occurs when activity or movement applies pressure on the bladder and causes bladder leakage, anywhere from a small amount of pee to a complete emptying of the bladder.
Activities that may cause urine leaks with stress incontinence include:
Urge incontinence, sometimes called an overactive bladder, occurs when you have a strong, sudden urge to pee and you can’t make it to the bathroom. Other symptoms may include, the strong urge to pee more than eight times a day but expelling very little.
An individual can experience these separately or in combination.
Who gets it and why?
Both females and males can experience urinary incontinence. However, females experience UI at double the rate as males due to the unique reproductive events, such as pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause.
Pregnancy + Childbirth
During pregnancy, a lot of extra weight is bearing down on your pelvic floor muscles. This constant pressure can lead to weaker muscles. Additionally, the pelvic floor muscles stretch a significant amount during labor to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. Often there is muscle tearing and nerve damage that can impact your postpartum healing. It takes time to repair the weakened and damaged pelvic floor muscles after this kind of ongoing pressure and stress.
The most common connection between menopause and UI is due to a decrease in estrogen levels which causes your vaginal tissue to become thinner and weaker.
A recent study showed reports of weight gain, anxiety, and diabetes during the menopause years to be associated with bladder leaks as well.
Additionally, like all muscles, the bladder and urethra muscles lose some of their strength over time as we age.
While reproductive health moments are common causes of UI, women who do not have children and who are not menopausal can also experience UI. An individual may experience urinary incontinence from:
- Participating in heavy weight lifting or high impact exercise that puts stress on your pelvic area
- Weight gain
- A drop in estrogen due to natural hormone shifts during your period or lifestyle changes
When to seek help
UI is manageable and treatable with the appropriate professional guidance and tools. Whether you are experiencing regular minor leakage or higher volume leaks, it’s important to talk to a professional to identify the underlying problem. The earlier you seek help, the more likely you’ll gain control of the situation and prevent it from getting worse.
Start by talking to your OB, general healthcare provider, or urologist—advocate for yourself. Let them know how regularly this is occurring, the volume of leakage, and what specific activities trigger it.
How to treat urinary incontinence
The best treatment for stress incontinence is addressing your pelvic floor muscles, which can be done by scheduling an appointment with a pelvic floor physical therapist. Urge incontinence is best treated by identifying triggers and working on behavioral changes.
One thing is certain, solving the problem requires more than merely practicing Kegels. Kegel exercises may be part of the overall treatment, but they may not be needed at all.
To find the best treatment for your personal needs and goals, seek out a pelvic floor physical therapist. A pelvic floor therapist can help identify where the underlying issue may be and provide targeted exercises to help strengthen and correct your incontinence.
They will determine what functions your muscles need help with, whether it’s contraction, relaxation, stretch, and/or coordination with other muscles. The appointment(s) may include external observation, internal exams, and/or biofeedback testing.
Treatment options may include:
- Targeted pelvic floor exercises
- Breathing and stretching techniques
- Gentle core strength building exercises
- Lifestyle changes
- Specific tools to aid in your treatment
How to manage your bladder leaks
As you are working to correct your incontinence, there are a few things you can do to manage the side effects and relieve your anxiety when out in public or social settings:
- Find leak control products that work for you, like these incontinence pads and liners designed specifically for urinary incontinence
- Empty your bladder before any strenuous activity
- Schedule an appointment with a pelvic floor therapist to find out if there are exercises you can be doing to help with your bladder leaks
If incontinence is an issue for you, you aren’t alone! The more you can talk about the problems you’re experiencing, the less shameful you’ll feel and the more empowered you’ll be to seek out solutions rather than quietly suffer.
Looking for ways to manage urinary incontinence? Cora’s Bladder Liners were designed by women in the know, and made to eliminate the anxiety and fear that goes along with experiencing light bladder leaks.
Author Bio Amanda Panneton has built a career around using her words as a freelance writer and marketing professional. She finds writing to be a powerful tool in creating connections within the never-ending journey of motherhood, womanhood, and relationships. You can find her musings on motherhood and more on Instagram at @amanda.panneton.