Urinary incontinence had reduced Helen Devaney’s quality of life to the point where she no longer wanted to leave the house and her confidence had hit rock bottom. The 65-year-old Mayo woman, who had suffered from incontinence since giving birth to her children, knew every toilet in her local town – in shops, restaurants, train and bus stations and even the library.
“The urge to go to the toilet would come on very suddenly and I couldn’t hold it so I would wet myself. Of course there are always queues in the ladies toilets. I had to bring a face cloth, towel and change of underwear and trousers everywhere I went. Even though I was clean, I felt smelly. You develop a real hang-up about it,” she says.
Car journeys were a nightmare for Helen with constant toilet stops along the way. She was fortunate to have a patient and understanding husband, but says “many a field I went into and many a stinging I got”. She suffered constantly urinary infections and sensitive skin from wearing pads.
“I didn’t talk about it to anybody apart from my sisters. I was embarrassed to even discuss it with a male doctor and was very thankful my GP had a practice nurse who was really helpful. Once, I leaked on the table during an MRI in front of two male technicians, I was so ashamed.”
Helen's symptoms deteriorated considerably when she hit the years of menopause and she ended up with stress and urge incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, diverticular disease and chronic constipation. She was "in a bad way" by the time she was referred to a colorectal consultant at the Bon Secours Consultants Clinic in 2013 who in turn referred her to clinical physiotherapist, Aoife Ni Eochaidh.
“That was the first time I got real help. Aoife’s first words were “you’re not the best I’ve seen, but you’re not the worst. I can help you”. To hear those words mean so much to a person who is desperate. I’m not fully out of the woods yet but I’m a hell of a lot better than I was. I can walk for 2k now without needing the toilet and the other day we drove from Tipperary to Galway and I didn’t have to ask my husband to stop once.”
Helen had to be taught how to sit on a toilet properly and how to empty her bladder fully. She had to make a number of lifestyle changes which included switching to decaf tea and coffee, losing weight, walking and getting a good night’s sleep. She also has to incorporate her pelvic floor training exercises into her daily routine.
She had tried a number of electrotherapy devices, some of which she found very invasive, before she started treatment on the PelviPower chair.
“I basically sit back, close my eyes and let the chair do the work for me. I have definitely seen great improvements since I started the treatment. My confidence has improved so much overall. Now if anybody asks me to go on a journey, I’m in the car before they can change their mind,” she laughs.
Helen is appealing to local authorities to think twice before removing public loos as people suffering from incontinence rely heavily on them and most would be happy to pay for the use of the facilities. She points out that many shops, bars and restaurants prominently display signs stating their toilets are for customer use only and she herself has been refused on more than one occasion when she was really desperate to go.
“Can I just say to anyone out there who is going through what I went through for so many years, there is help, there is a fix. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or practice nurse, it has given me a new lease of life and it can for you too.’
Urinary incontinence isn’t always preventable. However, there are some ways to help decrease your risk:
Pelvic floor exercises
Doing pelvic floor exercises, daily, can be really effective at reducing leakage.
If you smoke, you put yourself at risk of incontinence. Coughing puts strain on your pelvic floor muscles.
Heavy lifting puts strain on your pelvic floor muscles.
Being overweight can weaken your pelvic floor muscles and can cause incontinence.
Caffeine irritates the bladder and can make incontinence worse. Remember, fizzy and energy drinks, tea and hot chocolate also all contain caffeine.
Alcohol is a diuretic, which makes you urinate more often.
Many with urinary incontinence avoid drinking fluids. However, you need to drink to avoid reducing your bladder's capacity.