'How I beat urge incontinence'

Nurse Debbie Flynn started getting sudden, strong urges to rush to the toilet after the birth of her second child, when she was 34.

"It could happen anywhere and at any time. I remember once I was at a petrol station, when an uncontrollable urge came on and I had an accident. I had to drive home sitting on a carrier bag so the seat didn’t get wet," says Debbie.

"Another time, I was at a patient’s home changing a dressing when, again, I had a sudden urge to rush to the loo and ended up wetting myself.

"This wasn’t just a case of getting a little bit damp. My clothes would be soaking wet. I always had to carry a change of tights and underwear with me wherever I went.

"I was also having to get up and go to the toilet two or three times a night when the urge to urinate woke me, so I was exhausted during the day."

Cut out caffeine to ease overactive bladder symptoms

Debbie saw her GP, who diagnosed an overactive bladder. "He advised me to cut out caffeine from my diet, as it’s a bladder irritant. I switched to decaff coffee and tea, and it did help a little, but I was still having bouts of urge incontinence.

"I also tried daily tablets to calm down my bladder. The tablets helped, but they gave me a very dry mouth and a feeling of bad breath, so I’d take them for a while, but then have to have a break for a couple of months. Whenever I stopped taking the tablets, my symptoms would come back."  

A bladder diary helps to diagnose incontinence

Debbie was referred to her local continence clinic to learn about bladder retraining, which is a simple but effective way of controlling urge incontinence and an overactive bladder.

"First, I had to fill in a bladder diary for three days, recording exactly how much I drank and how often, as well as how often I went to the loo and how much urine I passed each time."

The bladder diary showed that Debbie was going to the toilet up to 15 times a day and three times a night. The norm is to go four to eight times a day and up to once a night. It also meant she could set goals about how long to hold on before emptying her bladder, to help it get stronger.

Bladder retraining teaches how to `hold on` for longer

"My bladder wasn’t full each time I used the toilet and there was no physical need to go so often. Bladder retraining is about learning to overcome the urge to urinate, so that you gradually increase the capacity of your bladder and manage to go longer between trips to the toilet. The bladder is just a muscle, after all, and if you don't use it, you lose it.

"The urge to urinate does pass after a minute or so if you manage to put it off. There are several ways that I do this. I distract myself, and by thinking hard about something else I can ignore the urge to go to the loo.

"Another tactic is to wriggle in my seat until the urge has passed. If I’m walking, I’ll stop and look like I'm fiddling with my shoe when really I’m concentrating on not having an accident."

Bladder retraining isn’t an overnight cure. Resisting messages from your bladder isn’t easy, so you need to be strong and focused. You also need to be patient, as it can take several weeks before you start to notice an improvement. 

Debbie’s experience inspired her to train as a nurse specialist in bladder and bowel care, and she now teaches bladder retraining to her own patients. "I still use bladder retraining myself, and I’ve seen how it can significantly improve an overactive bladder and the symptoms of urge incontinence in many of the people I work with at the continence clinic."

Read about how to get incontinence products on the NHS.

Page last reviewed: 13/01/2015

Next review due: 13/01/2017

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Incontinence

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