It’s embarrassing, frustrating and humiliating.
And those who suffer from it seem least likely to talk about it.
Urinary incontinence seeps into the lives of one in two women, according to Christine Heisler, MD, head of the Spectrum Health Medical Group Women’s Continence Center, which launched in November.
But there’s a stigma associated with incontinence, leaving many who drip feeling emotionally dry.
“There’s a high occurrence of this disorder, but it’s a quietly suffered disorder,” Dr. Heisler said. “People don’t want to talk about it. They’re embarrassed to bring it up to their primary care doctor.”
Women can experience symptoms for years, according to Dr. Heisler. Even if they do muster the courage to bring it up to their provider, many don’t undergo an exam.
“It’s not mal-intent, but it’s kind of an opportunity missed,” she said.
Incontinence can happen to anyone, from teenagers to the elderly, from those who recently gave birth to those who are navigating through menopause.
Experts estimate more than 17.5 million women in the United States suffer from incontinence.
Spectrum Health Medical Group urology division and women’s health staff gathered last year and set out to change the landscape of incontinence care.
“What can we do to show support for our community to get women to understand this is something we can help with?” Dr. Heisler said about the discussion among medical professionals. “There is hope. There is help.”
Dr. Heisler and the newly formed continence team have helped many, including a patient who had not been able to lift up her grandchildren for almost a year because of leakage.
After surgery, she was able to pick them up with no issues or fear.
Another patient was elated to be cancer-free for a year, but discouraged because she had survived a life-threatening illness, only to be limited by extreme urinary leakage. She frequently was unable to make it to the bathroom without emptying her entire bladder.
After the placement of a sacral neuromodulation device, she could resume normal activities and travel again.
She and her husband cried tears of gratitude.
“We recognize the need is great and providers are few,” Dr. Heisler said.
Patients come to the continence center through referrals. Trained providers throughout the Spectrum Health system treat patients according to the same protocol.
The team includes urogynecologists, urologists, gynecologists, advanced practice providers, physical therapists, neurologists and other health professionals.
“By creating this standardized care pathway, it allows the patient to stay where she is, but she is treated the same way as at the continence center clinic,” Dr. Heisler said. “What we have tried to do is look at providing the best possible care to our community at large. It’s consistent, predictable, accessible and top quality.”
But still, in many cases, taboo reigns the public realm.
“Given the lack of public awareness, there’s still not a real understanding of what treatment options there are,” Dr. Heisler said.
Conservative treatment methods are the first resort–including modifying fluid intake, recognizing irritants such as alcohol, coffee, tea and citric acid–and working on muscle control.
“We can work with women in physical therapy,” Dr. Heisler said. “There are multiple modes of treatment and a lot of ways for women to get better without surgery. Some women can see fairly quick improvement within weeks to months with more advanced therapy.”
But the first step is admitting there’s a problem.
“You can’t get help unless you ask for help,” she said.