18 March 2019

Why some teenagers also suffer from incontinence

'But it’s something only old ladies suffer from.' Not true. Peeing a little every time you laugh or sneeze has nothing to do with age, and even teenagers are sometimes affected.

We tend to associate uncontrolled urination either with very young children or the elderly. Although it tends to be more common in older people, incontinence can, however, strike at any age.

The involuntary leakage of urine can be embarrassing and confusing at first – but most people quickly learn how to manage the situation.  

According to Incontinence United Kingdom, urinary incontinence occurs in 3% of fifteen- to sixteen-year-old teenagers. A longitudinal study also showed that one-third of children who experience urinary incontinence in their younger years, will have the condition through puberty and beyond.

Another study by the University of Bristol and published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, showed that in young people urinary incontinence can have a far-reaching impact on their studies and social life. It found that teenagers are hesitant to speak up about their continence problems to their parents, friends and medical professionals due to embarrassment and fear of being teased.

However, hiding the issue will not only have a psychological effect, but may be dangerous if there's an underlying medical problem that's causing the incontinence.

Reasons why teenagers experience incontinence

To start proper incontinence management, it’s important to establish the cause of the condition. There are different types of incontinence:

  • Stress incontinence, which occurs when the bladder muscles are put under stress due to pressure. Leakage occurs when you cough or exercise.
  • Urge incontinence is the overwhelming urge to urinate. Leakage may occur before you reach the bathroom.
  • Nocturnal enuresis is when involuntary urine leakage happens during the night, or when the urge to urinate wakes one up.

These types of incontinence can be caused by many factors such as:

  • A fluctuation in hormone levels
  • Conditions that cause nerve damage, such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes
  • A bladder infection
  • Injury or frequent participation in high impact sport

According to a study presented to the Health Department of Stellenbosch University, the causes of urinary incontinence in the adolescent population vary widely, but one of the most common causes of incontinence in teenagers, especially young females, is sport injury resulting from high-impact sports such as running and gymnastic, where you hit the ground with force. This can result in damage to the pelvic muscles over a period of time.

Other causes can be biological or run in families, or the pelvic muscles can simply be weaker than average. Risk factors also include conditions such as obesity (more pressure on the bladder), cystic fibrosis, chronic constipation (also causing more pressure on the bladder) and childhood nocturnal enuresis that occasionally carries over to the teenage years.

It’s important to determine the cause of incontinence so that the condition can be managed properly and one's quality of life remain unaffected.

Managing incontinence

Whether urinary incontinence is mild or heavy, it’s vital to seek the right treatment and management for your situation. Here are some tips:

  • Experiment with absorbent pads. Fortunately not all absorbent products are bulky.
  • Manage your water intake. It’s important to stay hydrated as dehydration can irritate the bladder more; it is, however, important not to overfill the bladder.
  • Don't be embarrassed. Know that the condition is more common than you think. 
  • Go slow on diuretics such as coffee and sugary drinks, as these can irritate the bladder even more.
  • Try pelvic muscle exercises.
  • Talk to a parent or a medical professional who will be able to offer advice and support. 

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

Incontinence Expert

Dr Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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