Holding It Together

Posted on: 11 March 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Incontinence affects many people, but there are solutions. We look at why it occurs and what can be done to control it.


Incontinence is a little discussed problem, but it affects millions of men and women of all ages in this country. In 2008, the Medical Research Council (MRC) conducted a survey which found that more than 20% of women aged 40 and over suffer from urinary incontinence ‘several times a month’. This rises to 1 in 4 if occasional incontinence is included.

Urinary incontinence is about four times more common in women than in men, and by the age of 75, at least 16% of women have experienced some form of incontinence. Many studies have confirmed that the incidence of urinary incontinence increases with age, with prevalence peaking around 45 to 55 years of age, dipping between 55 and 70 years of age, and increasing again beyond the age of 70. One study found daily incontinence in 12.5% of women under 80-years-old.

What Causes It?

Incontinence is more common as we age because of the thinning and weakening of the pelvic muscles, ligaments and other tissues that normally keep the bladder and bowel closed.

Stress Incontinence: One in five women aged over 40 experiences this form of incontinence, which occurs because the bladder sphincters and pelvic floor muscles aren't strong enough to keep the bladder closed when there's increased pressure inside the abdomen. It often occurs when someone laughs, coughs, sneezes or exercises. Common causes include trauma to the area during childbirth and changes during the menopause.

Oversensitive Bladder: If the bladder muscles go into an uncontrollable spasm, it may empty suddenly. This is also known as an overactive bladder or detrusor instability, causing urge incontinence.

Severe Constipation: In some cases, faeces block the bowel but looser stools from higher in the intestines squeeze past the blockage, causing overflow diarrhoea.

Congenital Defect: You may have been born with a defective bladder or sphincter, which means you've always leaked or you start to leak once other factors, such as ageing, add to the problem.

Infections: Kidney or urinary tract infections can disturb normal bladder control.

Nerve Damage: Urinary and faecal incontinence (and retention) can be caused by damage to the nervous system, such as spinal cord injury, or diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Illness & Disease: Any illness that leaves a person weak or confused increases the risk of incontinence. Tumours of the rectum or anus can cause faecal incontinence.

Who's Affected?

Incontinence affects up to 20% of the older female population. One factor is declining oestrogen levels after the menopause.

Urinary incontinence is less common in men but still occurs, especially if the man has any sort of prostate disease or is frail and weak.

It's more frequent in people with reduced mobility and other medical problems, as they're less able to get to the toilet when necessary.

It's a common problem among people living in residential or nursing homes.

What Can You Do?

Incontinence isn't an inevitable part of growing older and you don't have to accept it

If you leak a small amount of urine when you cough, laugh or move (or without any obvious trigger), it's worth talking to your doctor. Incontinence isn't an inevitable part of growing older and you don't have to accept it.

Faecal incontinence is even more abnormal and usually requires investigation.

How’s It Treated?

Your GP will want to discuss the problem with you, perform an examination and arrange for further tests. He or she may also suggest self-help techniques you can try before resorting to medication.

  • Retraining the bladder with regular trips to the toilet can help, especially when the bladder has been overstretched by 'holding on' or failing to empty it completely.
  • Bowel retraining can help some forms of faecal incontinence. It's also important to make motions as formed and regular as possible, using dietary changes and medication as necessary.
  • Exercises can help women to strengthen pelvic floor muscles that have been damaged or stretched during childbirth.
  • It can be helpful to treat any problems that increase pressure on the bladder, such as constipation and fibroids. Losing excess weight may also help.
  • Drugs are available to treat urinary incontinence, depending on the cause. Most improve the muscle tone of the bladder. These may have to be taken for at least several months.

Urinary incontinence isn't a serious disease or life-threatening, but it can seriously disrupt quality of life. With the appropriate treatment it may be cured or improved dramatically. There's no need for anyone to suffer in silence.

Faecal incontinence may require surgery.

Web Links

For further information on incontinence, visit the Bladder & Bowel Foundation website at http://www.bladderandbowelfoundation.org/.

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