If you accidentally leak a little urine now and then, know that the problem is common — and that the solution is usually a simple one. (Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)
Sometimes, you just gotta go. And for some people, sometimes you just can’t hold it in — usually when you cough or exercise. A leaky bladder can be inconvenient or embarrassing, but it’s also common: About 4 to 10 percent of women experience urine leakage, studies report. (The problem also affects men, but less frequently.) If you’re one of them, simple exercises that you can do anywhere can help.
In fact, new guidelines from the American College of Physicians recommend pelvic floor muscle exercises before trying one of the various prescription medication options available for the condition. And a recent study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women with leaky bladder who practice the exercise also boost their sexual function. (Bonus!)
The most common cause of urinary incontinence (UI) is an overactive bladder, which is when the bladder contracts while filling, says urologist and researcher Tomas Griebling, MD, MPH, with the University of Kansas Hospital and University of Kansas School of Medicine. Another main cause is stress incontinence, he adds, where the closure mechanism at the outlet of the bladder isn’t holding with enough resistance. “So when people do activities that increase their intra-abdominal pressure, such as coughing or straining, then they leak because urine pushes past that,” Griebling tells Yahoo Health.
Pelvic floor exercises, commonly called kegels, help with both conditions as well as pregnancy-related leakage issues. They work by strengthening the muscles that help you hold in urine, Griebling says. The same exercises also reinforce the sphincter muscles, he adds, which are lower down and closer to the opening in women.
HOW TO DO IT: First, it’s important find the correct muscle, says Sherry Thomas, MD, MPH, a urogynecologist in private practice in Agoura Hills, California. The pelvic floor consists of multiple muscles, and you want to make sure you’re targeting the smaller sphincter muscle. This can be difficult since people tend to tighten larger, stronger muscles to support smaller, weaker ones, the American Urological Association says.
There are a few ways to make sure you’re doing it right. Thomas recommends stopping urinating mid-stream when you go to the bathroom, and practicing that until you feel confident that you have it down. You can also think of clenching the area as if you were trying to avoid breaking wind, Griebling suggests. Be sure not to brace your abdominal muscles or strain too hard, he says, because doing so can make the exercise less effective.
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Once you’ve IDed the right muscles, give them 10 to 15 quick squeezes about five times a day. You can practice when you wake up, before bed, and after each meal, Thomas suggests. “It’s not an aggressive contraction,” she adds. “You’re really just trying to isolate the sphincter muscle that causes incontinence.”
It’s fine to try this on your own — there aren’t any major side effects, according to the American College of Physicians guidelines — but see your doctor if the problem really bothers you or kegels don’t seem to help. “Urinary incontinence is commonly caused by reversible things, such as medication or a bladder infection,” Thomas says. “I see so many women where we can reduce their incontinence or cure it because it’s something reversible.”
If you do see a doc, make sure to get a thorough evaluation, and try conservative treatments — like kegels or other forms of bladder training — first, Thomas cautions. (Surgery can help in severe cases, but it’s not something you should rush into.) Griebling sometimes refers his patients to a physical therapist for pelvic floor training, so that’s another option to consider if you’re not sure if you’re doing the exercises properly.
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