When it comes to incontinence, there are so many old wives' tales that it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. 20-year-old Lauren Schmidt* from Fish Hoek, Cape Town thought that a weakened bladder was something that only affected old ladies... until she started experiencing leakages herself.
After losing her mother at the age of fourteen, Lauren began to develop unhealthy eating habits that would later indirectly contribute to her bladder woes.
"I began comfort eating and soon started putting on a few kilograms every month. I was going through puberty and my metabolism changed but I was also eating really badly and didn't want to play sports at school any more. I would rather hide in my bedroom with a slab of chocolate and a bag of chips and read my books."
A lot of pain
By the time her 19th birthday came around, Lauren weighed close to 90 kg. At 1.65m, this meant her body mass index (BMI) was 33.1 – a figure that meant she was medically classified as obese. To make matters worse, Lauren had also recently found out that she was pregnant after missing a period. Lauren decided to keep the baby, but between her pregnancy and her extra weight, she soon began to feel really uncomfortable.
"I was always tired and didn't exercise at all. I would be in a lot of pain, especially in my feet and lower back. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I began to wee a little bit when I laughed or when my bladder felt too full. It was really embarrassing but I thought that it was just because I was heavily pregnant and that it would go away once my baby was born."
But after giving birth, Lauren's bladder weakness didn't improve, in fact it got worse. Laughing, sneezing and coughing would all cause her to leak urine. She started working out at her local gym to lose some weight but found that she would often wet herself while exercising.
"It was so humiliating. I was trying to improve my health but I would always need to take an extra pair of sweatpants to the gym in case I leaked. I was surrounded by all these gorgeous, toned women and there I was – fat and wetting myself. Eventually I just stopped going to the gym altogether because I was convinced everyone was staring at me.
A pad filled with pee
"Every time I changed my baby's nappy, I kept wondering what she would think when she was toilet-trained but her mom was still wetting her panties."
Lauren gave up on the idea of ever having a long-term relationship after a terrible experience with her baby's father.
"My boyfriend and I were having sex once when I suddenly felt too much pressure on my bladder and urinated. Needless to say, it instantly killed the mood, and without sex, the relationship eventually fizzled out. I don't blame him. What guy in his twenties wants to take off a girl's panties to see a pad filled with and smelling like pee?"
Lauren eventually confided in her grandmother about her urinary incontinence, but like many, Lauren's granny believed that bladder weakness was just part of being a mother and there was nothing that could be done about it.
Read: Incontinence takes its toll on younger women
Why sanitary pads aren't effective for bladder leakage
What both Lauren and her grandmother didn't realise is that there are special incontinence products designed to absorb urine. Normal sanitary pads are not that effective for absorbing urine as most are not designed to absorb a rapid release of liquid and therefore do not protect against leakages.
Read: Kegel exercises curb incontinence in late pregnancy
Urinary incontinence can be treated
Lauren and her grandmother also incorrectly believed that incontinence is not treatable. This is not true. There are a number of different treatments available for urinary incontinence, depending on what type you have.
Lauren suffers from stress urinary incontinence where the pelvic floor muscles or sphincter muscles become weakened and leakages occur. The condition is common in women who are pregnant, have given birth or are significantly overweight.
Luckily, symptoms can be reduced or even eliminated through behavioural changes, medication, physical therapy (eg: pelvic floor rehabilitation) and surgical procedures.
Lauren eventually spoke to her gynaecologist about her bladder troubles. He assured her that her symptoms could be improved and referred her to a physiotherapist specialising in incontinence.
"I am happy to say that my leakages are far smaller and less frequent after three months of seeing my physio. I have been using a vaginal cone that you place into the vagina and practice squeezing to strengthen the muscles. I can't believe that I battled for almost two years when there was such a cheap, simple solution to the problem."
With better bladder control, Lauren has returned to the gym and is getting her weight back on track.
"I now have proper light incontinence pads that I wear while exercising, just in case. I am much more confident and am really enjoying the effects that exercise is having on my body and my mood. I really want to get healthy and focus on being the best mommy I can be. I lost my mother when I was young and I don't want my daughter to have to go through what I did just because I didn't bother to look after myself."
*Name changed for privacy purposes
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