Even in this oversharing age, there are still some problems we're reluctant to discuss or admit to having. And if you're one of the millions of women who experience urinary incontinence, you probably do everything you can to keep the world from knowing about it. (What's with those TV ads where women cheerily chat to the camera about their bladder leaks? Come on! Would you go up to a total stranger and start talking about panty liners and bathroom visits?) Still, whether or not you're affected by incontinence, it's important to be informed about this topic, as well as what to do to keep the condition from interfering with your daily life.
The first thing to realize is that there are several forms of urinary incontinence, according to WebMD. The most common form in younger women, the site explained, is stress incontinence, which is caused by a weakening of the muscles around the opening of the bladder, as can happen during pregnancy or childbirth. As a result, anything that puts pressure on the bladder, like coughing, sneezing, or laughing, can cause unexpected urine leakage.
A different type of bladder leak is urge incontinence, which is caused by bladder spasms that can occur when the bladder muscles and nerves are inflamed or damaged. Women with this condition often feel a sudden uncontrollable urge to pee — just hearing the sound of running water can trigger an episode — and the leak can be substantial. Finally, there's overactive bladder, in which sufferers feel a more-frequent-than-normal need to go. Overactive bladder doesn't cause leaks, but it can make life inconvenient for women who fear being too far from a restroom at any given time. Certain medications, such as hypertension meds, can worsen the problem.
If you're feeling the need to go more often than usual, or if you've begun leaking urine unexpectedly, your first step should be to consult your doctor to determine the cause of the problem and discuss options. Some cases of urinary incontinence can be treated with medication, biofeedback, or a pessary, a device inserted vaginally that helps support the bladder and reduce leakage, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The good news is that, like any other muscle, the pelvic floor (the muscles surrounding the lower pelvis) can be strengthened through regular exercise. With your doctor's permission, you can try these easy exercises to help support these muscles and reduce the likelihood of an embarrassing bladder mishap.
California OB-GYN Candace Howe, MD, told Prevention that another way to work your pelvic muscles is in a lunge position. Stand with one leg bent in front of you as you dip the back leg down to the floor. Tighten your pelvic floor muscles Kegel-style as you inhale and exhale, going a little tighter with each exhalation. Repeat 5 times, then switch legs.
Still the champion of bladder-boosters, this exercise allows you to subtly work out those important muscles several times a day. As described by the Mayo Clinic, the first step is to isolate the pelvic muscles; you can do this by sitting on the toilet and trying to stop your urine flow by squeezing. If you can do it, then you're tightening the right muscles. After that, try establishing a routine of squeezing for five seconds, then relaxing for five. (Don't do Kegels on a full bladder; this can lead to infection, added the Mayo Clinic.) Do this five times in a row, then work your way up to 10 reps of 10-second squeeze/10-second release intervals three times a day. At first, it may be easier for you to do Kegels lying down to make sure you're not tightening your ab muscles.
Physical therapist Sarah Ellis Duvall specializes in pelvic-floor health through proper spine alignment and breathing. On her website, Core Exercise Solutions, she recommended this easy exercise, which requires only a deflated balloon: Lie on your side with your back rounded and your chin tucked. Inhale through your nose, then exhale through your mouth as you blow into the balloon. As she explained, this helps expand and contract the diaphragm, which in turn flexes and releases the pelvic floor muscles, strengthening them.
Dr. Howe also told Prevention that ab and inner-thigh exercises help strengthen the pelvic floor because the muscles are connected. She suggested sitting upright in a chair and squeezing a small exercise ball or a firm pillow between the thighs for 10 intervals of 10 seconds each.
Gentle Ab Contraction
Australian physiotherapist Michelle Kenway, who specializes in pelvic floor therapy, cautioned on her website that certain intense abdominal exercises, such as planks or crunches, can actually put undue pressure on the pelvic floor. Instead, she focuses on activating the lower deep ab muscles. To start, lie down with feet on the floor, knees bent and slightly apart (don't try to press your back into the floor). Put your hands on your lower stomach, near your pelvic bones, and contract the muscles toward your spine for a count of 10. Try not to move your upper abs or chest. Repeat three times.
Once you've done the ab contraction reps above, Kenway suggests a follow-up exercise: Maintaining the same position on your back, slowly slide one heel away from you along the floor until your leg is almost straight, then slowly slide back into place. Repeat with your other leg, working up to 10 times per side.
To work the hips as well as the abs and pelvic floor, Healthline suggested this move: Lie down on a mat with your legs bent, shins parallel to the floor. Start with your legs touching and slowly split your legs apart outward to the side, then return to starting position. Work up to three reps of 10-15.
Bottom line (no pun intended): You may not want to talk about this problem, but you may not have to live with it forever, either. With the help of your doctor and these easy pelvic workouts, you can get on with the business of living, without having to center your days around the nearest restroom.