A woman in blue tights and heels walks with yellow balloons covering her body and head, representing urinary incontinence.(Photo: Christie Vuong)

It’s Time To Talk About Urinary Incontinence

We talk openly about a lot of once-taboo topics—sex! menopause! mental health!—but it can still feel like incontinence is unspeakable. Chatelaine wants to change that.
By Rona Maynard

I was ambling down Toronto’s swankiest shopping strip when I felt moisture bloom between my thighs. It overflowed the pad, soaked my extra-thick panties and left a wet patch inside my jeans. Of all the places for an accident, I’d been cursed with Gucci. I hotfooted it to Nordstrom Rack, bought the cheapest panties on offer and ducked into a change room. No one saw me toss the evidence into a dumpster.

Urinary incontinence had dogged me for at least 20 years, ever since I entered menopause in my mid-40s. At first, it only struck when I sneezed or set a pace on the hiking trail; now it could ambush me anywhere. I swung between damp days and will-I-stay-dry days, not breathing a word to anyone, not even my doctor. Surely he’d tell me I was just getting older. At 68, I’d resigned myself to wet pants.

Then my doctor retired, and his successor sat me down to take my medical history. She asked about incontinence as if it were no more shameful than a migraine. She told me many sufferers see dramatic results from pelvic floor physiotherapy. In more than 30 years of fitness, I’d become a believer in physiotherapy. It had done wonders for my shoulder, knee and shins. But my pelvic floor?

One in three women will experience urinary incontinence in their lifetime. The bladder, along with the bowel and the uterus, needs the support of resilient pelvic floor muscles. Pregnancy weakens them; delivery can injure them. When estrogen levels drop during menopause, they take another buffeting. Although most common in women over 50, the problem can set in at any age. “The biggest risk factor is being female,” says Claudia Brown, a pelvic floor physiotherapist in Laval, Que.

Even though incontinence is a common problem, it keeps many women quiet. Incontinence can run your life—keep you from your favourite sport, force you to wear stain-concealing pants, turn a night out into an anxious rumination on how fast you can get to the bathroom. Compared to some, I got off lightly. My friend Shaune, 73, of Mississauga, Ont., spends more money on incontinence pads than she ever did on menstrual supplies and endures relentless yeast infections caused by trapped moisture. Trudy, 73, was flying home from Europe when she wet her pants waiting to get off a plane and catch a nine-hour connecting flight. She had just enough time to buy a bottle of cologne and spray her clammy bottom.

But “incontinence can always be improved, managed or cured,” says Brown. Treatment depends on the kind of incontinence you have. Lifestyle factors (consuming certain foods and drinks, smoking, inactivity) and gynecological issues, such as fibroids, can compound the problem. In all cases, you should expect both an internal exam and an in-depth conversation.

A holistic treatment plan can include customized Kegel exercises, breathing techniques, full-body stretches and lifestyle changes. My assessment at Proactive Pelvic Health Centre, Toronto’s first private pelvic floor physiotherapy clinic, took the concept of personal training to a new level. Instead of weights, my therapist used a vaginal probe. While I lay knees-up on a table, she asked me to squeeze the probe with my pelvic floor muscles and hold the contraction for three to five seconds. Oh, no. I barely managed a flicker. “Everybody knows how to contract their biceps, but we can’t see these [pelvic] muscles, so many people don’t have a good connection to them,” explains Angelique Montano-Bresolin, founder of the clinic.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t feel my abs, but they woke up when I joined my first gym. My pelvic floor muscles proved just as responsive. I practised contracting and relaxing for five minutes a day. After two more visits to the clinic with homework in between, I stopped leaking. More than five years later, I’m still accident-free. (Most patients see results after three months.)

You can’t stop your neck from sagging or arthritis from having its way with your joints, but you can have a stronger pelvic floor at any age. You have nothing to lose but your pads.

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Collage of best reusable urinary incontinence products on a background of yellow balloons

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A woman lies in a pile of yellow balloons, with her legs, in blue tights and heels, sticking out, representing urinary incontinence.(Photo: Christie Vuong)

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A needle, kegel throne and pessary on a background of yellow balloons, representing treatments for urinary incontinence.

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Two rolls of toilet paper on a bright yellow background, representing urinary incontinence.(Photo: iStock)

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Three photos of a woman doing various exercises to help with urinary incontinence.(Photo: Christie Vuong)

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