It may not be something people feel comfortable talking about but bladder incontinence is an issue that impacts many people in the older community. It affects around 37 per cent of women in the general population and 13 per cent of men and one way many people can strengthen their bladder is through pelvic floor exercises.
When women become menopausal, there are several hormonal shifts which can affect the bladder, while the growth of the prostate can cause problems in men. Other people can develop bladder weakness through heavy lifting, a history of pregnancy or vaginal birth, pelvic surgeries, hysterectomies or operations on the prostate.
According to the Continence Foundation Australia, a healthy bladder is one that empties between four and six times a day, can hold between 400ml and 600ml of urine, wakes you up no more than twice a night if you’re over 65, doesn’t leak urine and empties completely when a person goes to the bathroom. If this doesn’t sound like your bathroom habits, practicing pelvic floor exercises may assist.
While pelvic floor exercises are a useful tool for some types of incontinence, they won’t assist with all types of bladder issues. For example, those who have difficultly emptying their bladder or cases where the bladder overfills won’t benefit from exercises and further treatment and investigation is needed to correctly fix the issue.
Doctors will usually suggest pelvic floor exercises as the first form of treatment in people suffering from stress incontinence – where leaks occur as a result of laughing, sneezing and daily activities. They may also assist those experiencing urgency leakage – where people have a sudden urge to go to the bathroom.
Similarly, these exercises may prove beneficial in people who experience bowel incontinence, providing there is nothing else in the person’s digestive tract causing problems.
Women can strengthen the pelvic floor muscles by imagining they’re holding the flow of urine, holding in wind and trying to squeeze, pull up and hold the muscles in that area. Those who experience leakage with coughing or sneezing should typically start seeing improvements after six weeks of pelvic floor exercises.
Having said that, it can take longer to notice significant strength changes and this can take anywhere from three months to 12 months.
When practicing pelvic floor exercises, there should be no form of baring down or straining, because this can cause further problems. Instead, people should focus on pulling the muscles skywards. Exercises should also be completed three times a day and consistency is the key.
Pelvic floor exercises differ slightly in men and are a bit easier because they have a visual tool to assist them. For example, if a man stands in front of a mirror, he can imagine that he’s trying to stop the flow of urine or holding onto wind.
When men do this, they will see their scrotum lift and the penis retract. Noticing these visual cues lets men know they’re doing the exercises correctly.
It’s advised to start off with a shorter squeeze for around three seconds and then resting for a similar length of time. Both men and women should aim for 10 repetitions of the exercises to see improvements.
Anyone experiencing incontinence or problems with their bladder is always encouraged to speak to a health professional, GP or medical expert. While pelvic floor exercises can assist, a professional will be able to determine if there are other underlying issues that are causing bladder leakage or incontinence.
It’s also common for GPs to refer patients for a full continence assessment, which may help them with individual exercises. It’s also important to talk to a professional as soon as possible so investigations can occur and treatments can be implemented to avoid permanent damage.