Speaking openly about incontinence is essential for living life to the full in spite of this often debilitating condition, according to Klaus*, who began experiencing accidental urine loss in 2006 after surgery for prostate cancer.
Incontinence ranges in severity from ‘just a small leak’ to complete loss of bladder or bowel control in the most severe cases. It’s a widespread condition thought to affect one in five people over the age of 40.
Despite its prevalence, incontinence is something very few of us discuss. “For most of society, it’s a topic that’s out of bounds,” says Klaus, 74. “Even people I know who have incontinence are unwilling to talk about it. That’s especially true of men.”
All the same, the retired local government official has found it helpful to challenge this taboo. He says: “I’m quite open about it. I’ve told family and close friends, which helped me feel more relaxed. I also talked about it in a self-help group for cancer patients. And I’ve been willing to ask for help from professionals.”
Learning to manage
Klaus’s surgeon initially reassured him the problem would most likely clear up in time but, despite sessions with a physiotherapist, it never did. “At first, I was just happy I survived the cancer,” he recalls. “But when the incontinence didn’t get better, I began to get scared. It was very embarrassing to think others would notice. I also got quite angry about it.”
Over the years, Klaus has learned to manage the condition. He makes use of incontinence pads and, when away from home, takes time to locate nearby toilets. He says: “I’ve had some very good advice on products and that’s helped me find the best ones for me. Now I’m able to lead a normal life.”
Consultant urologist André Reitz, who treats up to 3,000 patients a year at a clinic in Zurich in Switzerland, agrees that incontinence sufferers can find ways to manage or even solve their problem.
“There’s very often something that can be done,” he says. “I remember a patient who had suffered from severe incontinence for 10 years. He had lost hope of any improvement. In his case, surgery was the answer and he’s now completely free of incontinence.
“For most people, though, more conservative treatments are better – for instance, exercises to strengthen pelvic muscles, medication or pads and other products. In the general population, and even in the medical community, there is not enough awareness of the range of options or how effective they can be as long as patients get personalised care.”
Don’t suffer in silence
Before people can access treatment, they need to get over the embarrassment factor, according to André. “Incontinence is widespread and it’s the sign of an underlying illness that needs to be treated; it’s not a sign of weakness or laziness. People who open up can manage the condition more easily and have a better chance of leading a normal life”, he says.
“I encourage anyone worried about incontinence to see their doctor and ask to be referred for specialist help. Never lose courage! There’s a solution for almost everyone affected.”
The final word goes to Klaus, who has some advice for others based on more than 10 years of dealing with incontinence. “It’s very important to admit if you are incontinent – don’t stay silent,” he says. “That’s been so important for me. It’s the best way to overcome the shame and get the right help.”
The impact of incontinence
Urinary incontinence is the accidental or involuntary loss of urine from the bladder. It affects many millions of people – men and women, young and old. Yet many keep it a secret for years.
Incontinence can make it difficult to lead an active life. Depending on the type of incontinence, some people can find it difficult to engage in their usual activities. This can lead them to withdraw from many aspects of their former life. Also, people often feel ashamed of the disorder and are uncomfortable discussing it.
Thankfully, this doesn’t need to be the case. There is a wide range of conservative and operational options to treat the problem and reduce its impact so that people can lead full, active and satisfying lives. For instance, incontinence products offer protection against leaks, comfort, discretion and skin friendliness.
* Name changed to protect patient anonymity
In 2018, HARTMANN is celebrating its 200-year anniversary. We are now counting down to our anniversary celebration in June 2018 through a series of articles that show how our employees and partners contribute to advancing healthcare, as well as discussing trends and issues that affect the healthcare systems we serve.