Healthy Bladder Habits
Urinary incontinence is a common medical problem, one that affects some 13 million people of all ages in the U.S. This loss of bladder control, which often accompanies a weakening of the pelvic floor muscles, is more common in people 65 and older, with women statistically more likely than men to experience the problem.
Carol Figuers, associate clinical professor in the Division of Physical Therapy at Duke University Medical Center, said there are two types of incontinence: stress incontinence, which can be brought on by physical actions such as coughing, sneezing or laughing; and urge incontinence (sometimes called 'overactive bladder'), which is characterized by a strong, sudden need to urinate followed by instant bladder contraction and involuntary loss of urine.
Figuers said prescription medications and new, minimally invasive surgical procedures are effective treatment options for the condition. But there are also some simple lifestyle changes that may help alleviate the condition.
"Decreasing or eliminating caffeine intake can help reduce bladder urges," she said, explaining that caffeine can irritate and stimulate the bladder and cause a person to have urgent, frequent urination and increased urine production. She recommends gradually reducing caffeine intake if consumption is more than two caffeinated beverages a day, in order to avoid possible withdrawal symptoms such as headaches or sleepiness. She suggests substituting decaffeinated drinks in place of beverages such as coffee, tea and colas.
Figuers says that some people who experience incontinence cut back on their intake of liquids, thinking that this will reduce their urge to urinate. This is a mistake, she said, since dehydration can cause the urine to become concentrated, leading to increased bladder urgency, foul-smelling urine and even bladder infection.
She added that drinking too much alcohol and consuming too many spicy foods can exacerbate incontinence. Chronic constipation and chronic coughing can also contribute to stress incontinence by putting pressure on the bladder.
Bladder training and timed voiding can help many people resist the urge to urinate, says Figuers. Developing a regular schedule of emptying can help the bladder hold more urine and gradually increase the time between voidings. However, holding urine too long can increase the risk of developing a urinary tract infection, she said.
Figuers says pelvic floor exercises, popularly called Kegels, can strengthen the muscles at the bottom of the pelvic cavity to help prevent leakage.
"An individual can learn to improve both the strength and endurance of this special muscle group through regular exercises. They're most effective when a person is able to isolate the pelvic floor muscle and exercise that muscle specifically."
Above all, said Figuers, you should be aware that you don't have to continue to suffer from with this condition.
"You're not alone. There are a number of fine non-surgical and increasingly less invasive surgical options for this condition. Talk to your physician. Don't let your bladder control your life."