How to get NHS help for incontinence

If you have incontinence, don't be embarrassed about getting medical help. The symptoms can be improved, and sometimes cured, with simple methods.

Almost half (45%) of all people with incontinence wait at least five years before they get help, according to Karen Logan, a continence nurse at Gwent Healthcare NHS Trust.

"There’s a huge stigma around incontinence despite it being so common," she says. "I would urge anyone with symptoms to come forward as it’s more than likely that we can sort out the problem and really improve their quality of life."

Get help if you've had incontinence problems for more than a few weeks to rule out conditions such as diabetes.

Here’s where you can go for expert help.

Your GP and incontinence

Your GP can assess whether you have incontinence, decide which type of incontinence you have, give general advice on controlling symptoms of incontinence, provide information on pelvic floor exercises and bladder retraining, and give treatment for incontinence with prescribed medicines.

If lifestyle changes and treatments don't solve the problem, your GP can refer you to a continence adviser or specialist.

Continence clinics

In the UK, there are over 360 NHS continence clinics, with specialist teams providing support and medical advice for people with bowel or bladder incontinence. "If you prefer not to see your GP, these are an excellent alternative first stop for diagnosis and treatment," says Logan. "We can significantly improve life for 75-80% of the people who come to us with incontinence problems."

Continence clinics can be based in a hospital or in the community, often attached to a health centre. You don’t need to be referred by your GP and you can phone them directly to make an appointment. On your first visit, a continence adviser, usually a nurse who specialises in bowel and bladder problems, will assess you and explain your incontinence treatment options.

Continence advisers, and the incontinence physiotherapists who work alongside them, are particularly good at teaching pelvic floor exercises to women with stress incontinence (sudden leaks) and bladder training to women with urge incontinence (regular urges to use the toilet). They can also issue pelvic-floor-strengthening devices, such as vaginal cones, and continence pads and products, as well as explaining how to use them.

To find details of your local NHS continence clinic:

  • Call the Bladder and Bowel Foundation (B&BF) confidential helpline on 0845 345 0165, or use the continence clinic directory on the B&BF website (you have to register to use this online facility).
  • Call your local hospital for details of your nearest clinic.

The hospital incontinence specialist

If the help offered by your GP or local continence clinic doesn’t work, you can be referred to a hospital urologist or urogynaecologist for tests and possible incontinence surgery. If you have bowel incontinence you may be referred to a colorectal surgeon or gastroenterologist .

According to Karen Logan, only 10-15% of patients who attend continence clinics have to be referred for surgery.

If you decide to have surgery, it’s important that your surgeon has the necessary skills and training. Check that they're trained in surgery for incontinence and have done these operations often enough to keep their skills up to date.

Now, read tips for living with incontinence.

Page last reviewed: 21/10/2012

Next review due: 21/10/2014

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