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What is incontinence? Causes, treatments and implications

What is incontinence?

Incontinence occurs when you’re unable to control your bladder or bowel leading to accidental leakage, known as urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence respectively. There are several types of incontinence that affects both males and females with the NHS estimating that between three and six million people in the UK have some degree of urinary incontinence alone, with many more living with the condition undiagnosed.

Benenden Health carried out research to understand more about the needs of people living with incontinence, with our survey showing over a quarter of respondents (27%) report that they suffer with the condition regularly but have never sought medical diagnosis. In the UK, 35% of people say they suffer daily with symptoms and staggeringly, over 50% say it impacts their social life – leading to issues with mental health and a lack of awareness around more serious conditions.

Causes of incontinence

The causes of incontinence symptoms differ largely between men and women.

For males, common causes of incontinence can be infection, constipation or prostate problems. Alcohol intake was a significant factor with 43% of men saying this caused them to have leakages. Alcohol alone doesn’t cause incontinence, but it does act as a diuretic, this means that the amount of urine produced when drinking alcohol is increased, leading to more frequent visits to the toilet. Alcohol also acts as an irritant in the bladder, which can make overactive bladder symptoms worse. If you believe you may be suffering it could be worth trying to cut back on alcohol consumption to see if this has any impact on your symptoms.

Along with alcohol, caffeinated drinks, carbonated drinks, spicy foods and citrus foods can exacerbate symptoms.

In females, stress and urge incontinence are the most common types, a massive 79% of respondents claimed that laughing and sneezing caused them the most accidents.

Actions such as coughing and sneezing puts repetitive strain on the pelvic floor which, over time, causes muscles to weaken and leads to accidents. This is much higher in women for reasons such as pregnancy, childbirth and the menopause.

Types of incontinence

There are a range of different types of incontinence that can be triggered by various lifestyle factors or major life events such as pregnancy or surgery. The main types are detailed below:

  • Stress incontinence – when your bladder is put under stress when coughing or laughing and urine leaks out

  • Urinary incontinence – the general term used to describe the unintentional passing of urine

  • Urge incontinence – when urine leaks out when you feel a sudden urge to urinate

  • Overflow incontinence – the term used to describe incontinence when you’re unable to empty your bladder fully, leading to leakage. This can also be associated with the bowl if you're suffering with constipation

  • Bowel incontinence – when you experience accidents due to problems controlling your bowels

Who does incontinence effect?

It is commonly believed that incontinence affects only the older generation of women, however it is a real-life problem for people of all ages - both male and female. In fact, it’s a condition that often remains a secret for many people with almost a third of suffers (29%) saying that they haven’t told anyone about their condition.

Cases of incontinence, particularly in men, are thought to be under reported due to the taboo nature of the topic. Our research tells us that over 64% of men have suffered from incontinence in public with almost 53% of males also saying they didn’t feel like they could seek medical help due to embarrassment.

Over 40 per cent of all respondents don’t even feel that they can confide in their family about the matter and this figure increased to 68% saying they wouldn’t discuss the topic within a group of friends.

Social life, mental health and incontinence

Although it’s not a life-threatening condition, incontinence has a physical and psychological effect on sufferers. This can lead to well-known mental health issues in a range of people. From the respondents surveyed, almost 40% stated that their incontinence has had a negative effect on their mental health – a percentage which increases amongst males and those who are younger.

Embarrassment and fear of being “caught short”, could mean that people say no to social occasions which may lead to anxiety and in more severe cases, depression. Our survey states that half of sufferers find that their symptoms and conditions affect their social life and almost half of respondents have completely cancelled plans because of incontinence symptoms or the fear of experiencing symptoms outside their home.

With almost two thirds of people (62%) suffering from problems at least once a week, it comes as little surprise that people’s social lives are negatively impacted – a quarter of sufferers say it’s caused them to experience agoraphobia – a disorder in which you fear and avoid places that may cause panic or embarrassment.

Incontinence at work

Incontinence symptoms don’t just disappear when you’re in the workplace. Research suggests that 45%of people have experienced issues in the workplace, but unfortunately, only 8% have felt comfortable speaking about the issues with work colleagues.

So how can employers help with incontinence?

More than a third (36%) of respondents state they would welcome a situation where the dialogue around the topic is more open and accepted – hardly surprising considering 35% of people suffer from incontinence related issues on a daily basis.

Over a quarter (28%) of respondents would consider more online resources as a significant step forward in receiving help and improving their incontinence symptoms, whereas 41% would consider better incontinence management products as a step forward in supporting the management of the issue.

Incontinence advice and treatment 

Remarkably, 44% of people have suffered from incontinence for over a year and 13% of people have experienced suffering for more than seven years. So, why do people not seek medical advice if it’s affecting them for this long and impacting on their social life and mental health?

50% of people have never sought any kind of medical support for the condition meaning their knowledge of both incontinence and methods on how to treat and manage it is impacted. This figure is even more staggering given that 42% of sufferers don’t know the cause of their problems. The majority of people suffer in silence rather than address the subject with appropriate treatment or management techniques.

As touched upon earlier, embarrassment is the main reasoning for not getting medical advice, with more than half of those surveyed giving this as the main reason they’ve refused to seek treatment or help. And 1 in 10 people blame GP waiting times as a reason for not getting their symptoms under control.

Janet Chaseley, a Specialist Nurse on the Continence Care Team at Benenden Hospital, said:

“Urinary incontinence is a common problem that can affect women and men of any age and can severely impact on their quality of life - yet can often be easily managed and treated. Don’t feel embarrassed about talking to your GP, as this is the first step to actively managing your symptoms.”

How can Benenden Health help with incontinence?

Benenden Health offers many services that can help people understand incontinence better, so your day-to-day life doesn’t have to be one of panic and worry. From day one of membership, you can receive access to our GP 24/7 helpline, meaning you can speak to a doctor via telephone or eConsultation, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. You can arrange an appointment that fits around your day, so there’s no need to book time off work or worry about out on social activities.

From day one, Benenden Health members also get access to our Mental Health Helpline which means you can speak to a qualified therapist for support and help if you’re feeling anxious.

After 6 months of membership, you also have access to face-to-face counselling which can be a great help while you’re waiting for NHS treatment. Additionally, from 6 months, you can request access to medical diagnostics or treatment services with an appropriate GP referral. Along with these services, after six months of membership, you can request access to our Physiotherapy service. You don’t need a referral and depending on the treatment you need, you’ll either receive a self-management programme or face to face treatment.

Incontinence doesn’t have to impact your day-to-day life and with Benenden Health you’ll get sympathetic and confidential support should you encounter any symptoms. Peace of mind for just £11.90 per month.

Benenden Health Provides Access To GP 24/7, Physio and Private Diagnosis & Treatment Benenden Health Is The Affordable Alternative To Health Insurance.

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on 26th November 2019. Next review date: 26th November 2020.