Stress urinary incontinence – what causes it, how to treat it and how to prevent it

By Megan Storey | February 25, 2019

Running, sneezing, jumping, laughing – they should be normal activities, but for some women they bring embarrassment or anxiety. Bladder weakness, incontinence and urinary leaking are common problems, especially in women after giving birth or going through menopause. There are many causes of bladder weakness, but today, we’re focusing on one of the most common: Stress urinary incontinence (SUI).

What is stress urinary incontinence?

SUI is where the bladder leaks a small amount of urine during activities that put pressure on the abdomen and push down on the bladder, like coughing, running or laughing.

What causes it?

The bladder

Stress incontinence in women is often caused by pregnancy,

childbirth and menopause. In a quick anatomy lesson, your urethra transports urine from your bladder out of the body, via a muscular structure called the urethral sphincter. The sphincter contracts to hold urine inside your body until you’re ready to go.

During pregnancy and childbirth, your pelvic floor muscles can stretch and weaken. The muscles normally support the urethra, so when they, or the sphincter muscles, are weak, they can’t do their job properly and hold your wee in. During menopause, the female hormone, oestrogen, is produced in lower quantities. Oestrogen helps maintain the thickness of the urethra lining, so sometimes with decreased oestrogen, the lining is affected, and some women experience SUI.

It’s most common with activities such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, walking, running, lifting or playing sport. Other factors that can contribute to SUI include diabetes, obesity, constipation, and a chronic cough (often linked to asthma, smoking or bronchitis).

How to treat it?

Every single person is different, so it’s always best to see your Pelvic floor physio so we can assess you and work out the best treatment plan for you. However, some common treatments we recommend to our patients include:

  • Pelvic floor exercises (see below for more information!).
  • Changes in fluid consumption: This could include drinking certain amounts of fluids at certain times of the day. Or it could involve cutting down caffeine or alcohol to see if they irritate your bladder.
  • Healthy lifestyle changes: Quitting smoking, losing excess weight or treating a chronic cough will decrease your risk of SUI, as well as improve your symptoms.
  • Bladder training: We may recommend a schedule for toileting, depending on the type of incontinence you have. This is more so used when it’s a mix of SUI and another type of incontinence.
  • Manual therapy: You may have some muscular imbalances that are inhibiting your pelvic floor from working properly or are impacting on other parts of your body. We’ll assess you, and then put together a treatment plan, which may include soft tissue massage, other musculoskeletal therapies, strengthening or stretching exercises, or more.

How do I prevent it?

Remember your physios, nurses, doctors, female relatives, mum friends (and the list goes on) telling you to do your pelvic floor exercises or Kegels when pregnant? Well, that’s one piece of advice you should listen to! In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re pregnant or not, you should always do your pelvic floor exercises to help strengthen those important muscles. Some basic pelvic floor exercises include:

  • Draw your pelvic floor muscles in and up, like you are trying to stop urinating mid-flow. Hold for 10 secs. Relax for 5-10 secs between each tightening and repeat 10 times. (Don’t actually do your pelvic floor exercises on the toilet – trying to stop while actually urinating can cause other bladder issues)
  • You can add faster pelvic floor lifts to the exercise by holding for 1-3 secs and relaxing for 1-3 secs. Repeat 10 times.
  • Progressing the long holds to 20 secs and then 30 secs may be a goal to reach for.

Try and make pelvic floor exercises part of your routine. For example, do them when you brush your teeth each morning and evening, and when eating lunch. There are also many more exercises to help you, including core exercises such as Pilates.

Pelvic floor exercises should not cause any discomfort or pain. If you have a history of pain with intercourse, vaginal exam or using tampons, or if you have trouble emptying your bladder or starting a wee, you should see a Pelvic Floor Physio prior to starting pelvic floor exercises.

If you’re experiencing urinary leaking, are pregnant, have given birth (at any point in your life!), or if you want help with a preventative program, please come and see us. It is always best to see a Pelvic Floor Physio to get an individual program and to be confident on correctly tightening your pelvic floor muscles. We have helped thousands of women with stress urinary incontinence over the years and would love to help you live a happier, less-anxious life, so you can laugh all you want without having to worry about incontinence!