New Year, New You: What You Need to Know About Female Incontinence

Northwestern Medicine
Women's Health February 13, 2017

Maggie Mueller, MDNew Year, New You…let’s keep it going!

With new year’s resolution floundering by the dreary month of February, it’s easy to lose sight of the important things, like taking care of yourself. Many women make new year’s resolutions to lose weight. And how do women plan to tackle this feat? Tried and true methods like healthy eating and exercise.

While there are many benefits to a healthy approach to weight loss, one less frequently touted, but very important, benefit of weight loss is a decrease in a symptom that can drastically alter a woman’s quality of life — urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence, or involuntary leakage of urine, is quite common and is one of the pelvic floor disorders that women commonly “live with” instead of seeking treatment.

Although many commonly think of older women as having incontinence, actually 1 in 3 women in the REPRODUCTIVE years will struggle with incontinence. Unfortunately, similar myths about incontinence perpetuate across generations and cause women to avoid seeking treatment. Some of these myths include thinking that leaking urine is normal, nothing can be done for this condition, surgery is the only option, treatments don’t work and so on and so forth. Let me try to dispel the risks for you.

While we know that leakage of urine is common, it is certainly not normal. There are two types of urinary incontinence that typically affect women: stress incontinence and urgency incontinence. As their names imply, both types of incontinence involve involuntary leakage of urine but are mediated by different phenomena. Typically, stress urinary incontinence occurs with the urethral sphincter, which is important in keeping urine in when you are not emptying your bladder, loses its ability to function.

On the other hand, urgency incontinence occurs when the bladder contracts before your brain has given it the OK to empty your bladder. Both of these phenomena involve a break in the normal continence mechanism… so by definition they are not normal. Unfortunately, these symptoms have been normalized in our society, and we are actively trying to raise awareness through educations of women and primary care providers that it is not normal to leak urine.

“So if it is not normal, can I do something to fix it?” is the common next question I hear from my patients. The answer is….YES! There are many conservative treatment options and procedural options to address every woman’s individual symptoms. Surgery is not the only option, and sometimes interventions as easy as physical therapy can drastically improve a woman’s symptoms.

At Northwestern Medicine’s Integrated Pelvic Health Program, we take an individually tailored approach to treating incontinence. Most of the procedures that we offer are minimally invasive options with minor side effects and good success rates. The most common feedback that we hear from our patients once they chose a management strategy to improve their quality of life is, “I wish I had done this sooner.” Honestly, my reaction is always, “Me too!”

So let me get back to diet and exercise and that pesky weight loss resolution. Keep up the good work! Not only will you feel better about yourself, you will actually be decreasing incontinence. Research shows that even small decreases in weight will decrease urinary incontinence episodes. Furthermore, research also suggests that as we age, stronger women suffer from less incontinence. So keep up your weight training and you will reap this additional benefit.

Certainly some types of incontinence, like stress urinary incontinence, can be exacerbated with exercise, but don’t let this hinder your plans.

If you are struggling with urinary incontinence, please come and talk to us. You can schedule an appointment with one of our urogynecologists at our two locations, Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital and Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, by calling 312.694.PFDS (7337).

See you at the gym!

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