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The lowdown on incontinence

Around 14 million people in the UK may have some form of bladder problem.* This means more people are suffering from bladder problems than from asthma, diabetes and epilepsy put together.

What are the common issues?

Problems can include an overactive bladder, which brings symptoms such as:

  • a sudden urge to go to the toilet

  • needing to go to the toilet often (more than seven times a day)

  • getting up at night to pass urine

It can also mean not quite getting to the toilet in time, which is called urge incontinence.

Another problem is stress urinary incontinence, such as leaking when you laugh, cough, sneeze, exercise or lift something. This can indicate that the pelvic floor or sphincter muscles have been damaged or weakened.
It’s worth remembering that these issues are not an inevitable part of ageing, and there are many things that can be done to help.

What can cause stress urinary incontinence?

Some women develop stress urinary incontinence during pregnancy. Another issue occurs during the menopause, when the pelvic floor becomes weaker following hormone changes within the body. Men can develop stress incontinence after radical surgery for prostate cancer. The main treatment for stress incontinence is pelvic floor exercises, although surgery to tighten or support the bladder outlet can also help.

Why are these issues worse in winter?

“It is a fact that urinary symptoms do get worse in the cold weather,” says Benenden Hospital lead urologist Steve Garnett. “As we sweat less and lose less fluid through sweating, we produce more urine instead. So there will be a need to pee more. For most people this isn’t a problem but for some it can start to affect their daily lives and it is at this point that they should seek medical advice.”

Are there any lifestyle issues that can exacerbate the problem?

“Alcohol, tea, coffee, energy drinks and all caffeinated drinks can all aggravate the bladder,” says Steve. The acid in fruit juices can also be problematic, and smoking increases the risk of bladder issues too. To maintain a healthy bladder, it’s important to drink six to eight glasses of fluid a day (more in warm weather). If you don’t drink enough, the bladder gets used to holding smaller amounts of urine and can become overly sensitive.

Do women suffer more than men?

No, the number of men and women who suffer from urinary symptoms is roughly even, although women are much more likely to seek help at an earlier stage. Steve says: “Men are more likely to suffer in silence. They are not so good at talking about their health problems. Often it is their wives or girlfriends who persuade them to see a doctor, as they are fed up being woken up several times during the night, or they find it is affecting their lives too.

“Men can start to worry about prostate cancer if they have an increased need to urinate, if they strain while urinating or feel that their bladder has not fully emptied. These symptoms should not be ignored, but they do not mean that someone definitely has prostate cancer. It is more likely that they are caused by something else, such as benign prostate enlargement.”

What should I do if I’m worried?

First, see your GP. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and your GP will have seen plenty of patients with this issue. Your GP can refer you to be assessed by a specialist nurse, who can advise on steps to improve the situation. “If you feel your urinary symptoms are getting worse or disrupting your life, you should seek professional advice,” says Steve. He adds that urinary symptoms can often be easily solved. Sometimes the solution is as simple as monitoring what you drink

Did you know?

Benenden Hospital offers a non-surgical treatment for an overactive bladder called percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS). It’s a paid-for treatment, although Benenden members qualify for a 10% discount. Contact the Benenden Member Services department.


*According to www.bladderandbowel.org/bladder