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Incontinence & Overactive Bladder Health Center

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Incontinence: A Woman's Little Secret

If you think urinary incontinence only affects older women, think again. Bladder control issues affect younger, active women, too -- are you one of them?

Incontinence a Big Problem for Young Women

Among teens and young women, incontinence problems are typically related to sports injuries, says Pamela Moalli, MD, a professor of urogynecology at the University of Pittsburgh Magee-Womens Research Institute. "About 20% of college athletes report leakage of urine during sports activities," she tells WebMD.

"Women in high-impact sports are at highest risk -- parachuters, gymnasts, runners," says Moalli. "In these sports, you're hitting the ground hard, which can damage pelvic muscles and connective tissue that support the bladder."

Many young women have pre-existing biological reasons putting them at higher risk, says Niall Galloway, MD, FRCS, professor of urology and director of the Emory Continence Center at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"It runs in families," he tells WebMD. "Just as bad eyesight runs in families, so can weak pelvic muscles. It's not that they've been overdoing it with exercise. It's just that they've reached the tolerance of their own tissues."

For these girls and women, simply wearing a tampon or pessary -- a device similar to a diaphragm -- during exercise is a good solution, says Galloway. "They just need a little something to support those pelvic tissues, something to put pressure on the urethra."

Coping With Incontinence: Lifestyle Changes

But for most women, a little absorbent pad is their first weapon, a lifestyle change their second.

For many women the change may be as simple as drinking less water.

"You can't drink two big bottles of water at one time, because it comes through your system as one big [wave] of fluid," says Brubaker. "If you have a little at a time, it's much easier for the bladder."

"Also, caffeine is a diuretic, so Cokes, coffee, any drink with caffeine make you leak more," Brubaker explains. "You need to cut back."

Perhaps you just need to urinate more frequently - especially before getting onto the tennis court, for example.

You may also simply learn to brace yourself when you laugh or cough, tightening your pelvic muscles to prevent leaks.

"Women are smart..." says Brubaker. "They try a bunch of things on their own before they get the gumption to talk to someone about it."

Incontinence Treatments

When basic changes aren't enough, several treatments are available. "Start with the most conservative, least-expensive treatment," Galloway tells WebMD. Options include:

Muscle training: For stress incontinence, learning muscle control can help manage leakage. That means regularly practicing pelvic muscle (Kegel) exercises, says Brubaker.

"You learn to feel the muscle that controls the bladder, and build strength in that muscle," says Brubaker. "If you're going to play tennis, and it's your backhand that makes you leak, you learn to tighten those muscles at that instant."

There's also a traditional Chinese therapy involving vaginal weights, which Galloway says are very effective.

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