In revealing that she has been affected by stress incontinence since the birth of her daughter (now 26), Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, is adding her voice to well known names such as Kate Winslet, Carol Smillie and Nadia Sawalha, who have all spoken publicly about what has been described as ‘the most embarrassing taboo’.
It turns out that 7million women in the UK suffer from a weakened pelvic floor after having children. In other words, we pee our pants. A little or a lot – the degree to which women are affected can vary. I am one of the seven million women. I have three children and the problems began during my first pregnancy.
What affectionately became known as ‘waddling and weeing’ in our house was seen as an inevitable side effect of having given birth to my beautiful baby. A quid pro quo if you will. I won’t lie, although I laughed it off, it came as a shock. I was only 35 and was under the impression that this was something which affected women in the latter stages of life. Something I would associate with grandmas rather than the business woman I knew myself to be. It made me feel like I was not in control of my body, which was not what I needed when my world had already changed beyond recognition since becoming a mum.
I set about taking my pelvic floor to task. I would not let it beat me. I dug out the leaflet I was given on leaving hospital and recalled the midwife’s question when completing her check list: “Are you doing your pelvic floor exercises?” My answer was a resounding “yes”. But, if I am entirely honest, I only said yes, as it was the easiest and quickest response. I didn’t want to let on that I didn’t actually know how to exercise my pelvic floor.
The leaflet did shed some light. It talked (briefly) about exercises I should be doing and how important this area of the body, or ‘sling of muscles’ was to my physical wellbeing. I quickly realised with some alarm, that if I failed to exercise effectively, not only could I continue wetting myself when coughing, sneezing, laughing and, heaven forbid, trampolining, but in time, everything that this magical sling was protecting and keeping inside could fail to do its job and I could prolapse.
Put simply, my innards could actually become ‘outards’ if I didn’t do my pelvic floor exercises. Waddling and weeing, it seems, was the least of my problems. Why in God’s name had nobody mentioned this to be me before I had kids? I might have been able to better prepare for all the physical changes.
As it turns out the issue is far bigger than I had initially realised. A weak pelvic floor and the resulting stress incontinence can affect intimacy and relationships, prevent women from leaving their homes for fear of having an incident, cause depression - the list goes on. The cost to the public purse is estimated at a whopping £233 million a year. It is a serious issue, which has the potential to affect 50% of the population.
And yet all I got was a leaflet.
In France, they tackle the issue head on. New mums get a pelvic floor specific post partum check up and multiple follow up visits with their GP to ensure everything is as it should be, and to address it when it is not.
In the UK we need to take things on a step. Pelvic floor health MUST be taught from an early age. With the review of sex education in schools currently underway there’s an opportunity for us to add the subject to the agenda. At the very least, girls should know where it is and what it is for. They should understand the importance of exercise and the role of the pelvic floor in their future wellbeing. They should understand the implications of neglecting this area of their body and how to prevent issues in later life.
Of course, the good news is that it isn’t too late for the rest of us. There is plenty we can do to help ourselves. While many women opt for pads to spare their blushes, a leaky bladder is not something we need to ‘live with’. I opted for a curative approach, of which there are many including: physiotherapy, exercises, yoga, wearable devices such as kegel balls, and in the worst cases, surgery. These can all help, if not to restore our bodies to their former glory, then certainly to alleviate the symptoms. A strong pelvic floor delivers multiple benefits, not only better bladder and bowel control but improved orgasms, core strength and body confidence.
Oh and it also facilitates the odd jump on the trampoline or a game of footy without the aid of a safety net (in your pants).