Why do some women still avoid medical treatment for incontinence?

Don't delay talking to your doctor if you experience urinary incontinence.
Don't delay talking to your doctor if you experience urinary incontinence.

Urinary incontinence can severely affect one's quality of life. There are ways to manage the problem without even thinking about surgery – however, this doesn't prevent thousands of women from suffering in silence.

'Too embarrassing'

According to a new poll from the University of Michigan, nearly half of all women over the age of 50 live with some form of urinary incontinence, ranging from a minor inconvenience to a major issue.

More than 1 000 women between the ages of 50 and 80 took part in the poll and more than 50% admitted to suffering from urinary incontinence in some form – yet two-thirds of these women have never consulted a doctor as they reckon the issue is “too embarrassing”.

The poll also showed that these women are finding ways of managing their urinary incontinence without medical intervention – including the use of special underwear or pads, wearing dark clothes and limiting fluid intake.

Not 'a normal part of ageing'

Women over the age of 65 were more likely to talk to medical professionals than younger women, even though younger women also suffer from urinary incontinence. It’s a misconception that only older women suffer from incontinence, even though the onset of menopause tends to increase the prevalence.

The poll shed some light on why urinary incontinence is still a very underdiscussed subject, even though there are ways to manage it with the help of a medical professional. In South Africa, there is a notable lack of studies on the prevalence of urinary incontinence in women, according to the South African Urogynaecology Association.

What do women do instead?

As mentioned above, these women are finding ways of managing urinary incontinence without medical intervention. Only 38% indicated that they incorporate pelvic floor exercises in their daily routine to help manage urinary incontinence.

Could new guidelines break the silence?

But across the globe, medical professionals are trying to break the silence.

"Urinary incontinence is a common condition that may not be routinely screened for in primary care, yet it can impact a woman's quality of life and health, and is usually treatable," said Carolyn Swenson, MD, a urogynaecologist at Michigan Medicine and IHPI member who helped develop the poll questions and analyse the findings in a press release. "It's not an inevitable part of ageing and shouldn't be overlooked."

Earlier this year, new guidelines from the Women’s Preventive Services Initiative (WPSI) suggested that women should be screened annually for urinary incontinence by using a series of questionnaires to determine bladder abnormalities.

The WPSI stated that the sooner women seek medical intervention for urinary incontinence, the earlier it can be managed and prevented from becoming worse.

Don’t ignore incontinence, ever

Urinary incontinence, especially if it occurs suddenly, could signify a serious underlying medical condition such as urinary stones, a tumour or a stroke. Go to the doctor, especially when:

  • Urinary incontinence happens suddenly, as this can be caused by nerve damage
  • Urinary incontinence has a severe impact on the quality of your life and your mental health
  • You have a constant feeling of fullness and pressure in your bladder

How to talk to your doctor

If you suffer from urinary incontinence and don’t see improvement through self-care, you shouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor, even if you feel embarrassed.

“Incontinence is never ‘normal’ and you should go to your doctor as soon as possible,” says Dr Prenevin Govender, Health24’s resident incontinence expert.

Here’s how to prepare for your doctor’s appointment to feel more at ease:

  • Drink water beforehand in case you need to provide a urinary sample.
  • Make a list of questions and don’t be embarrassed to talk openly to your doctor.
  • Think carefully about possible risk factors that could have triggered your urinary incontinence, such as vaginal births, pregnancy or menopause.
  • Be prepared to be referred to a urologist if there is an underlying problem.

Image credit: iStock

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