Beneath the little black dress, 1000s of women are having to hide their protective ‘party pants’ to avoid embarrassing moments
The Office Christmas party, with copious amounts of drinking and dancing, has all the ingredients for festive fun but is often a recipe for disaster in terms of embarrassing leaks and awkward moments amongst colleagues as festivities get into full swing.
In order to avoid these potential leaks, many women who live with stress urinary incontinence (SUI) on a daily basis will resort to incontinence products such as pads or pants, now widely marketed as a discreet and desirable staple of any woman’s wardrobe. Yet, despite the phenomenal growth of this sector – predicted to be worth almost £15 billion by 2026 – a new survey commissioned by the UK-wide education campaign, ‘Control Your Choice’, has shown that almost three quarters of women (72%) said they ‘felt embarrassed about wearing incontinence products’. Of these, 29% said it led to a fear of going out. Furthermore, almost a third (31%) of women are ‘depressed by the thought of having to wear incontinence products for decades.’
60% of all those questioned said they were concerned about the environmental impact of incontinence pads. Such pads are not easily disposed of and end up in land fill sites, taking hundreds of years to decompose.
The past two years has seen an unprecedented level of campaigning and debate, highlighting the devastating effects on some women following treatment using vaginal mesh or TVT-tape for conditions such as prolapse or for SUI. Whilst official inquiries continue, the UK has seen a temporary suspension in the use of these procedures.
In response, the past six months, has seen a huge push by the manufacturers of incontinence products encouraging women to turn to ‘pads and pants’ as a solution to their SUI. A strategy that has also led to complaint from the Royal College of Nursing to the advertising watchdog.
Leading experts are now calling for women to see past the recent headlines and, rather than suffering in silence, encouraging them to speak to a healthcare professional about their problem as a priority. Effective alternatives to mesh – and incontinence products – are available and women need to discuss the best available treatment options for them.
Nicola Dean, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, based at York Hospital, is now supporting the ‘Control Your Choice’, campaign warning that whilst the ‘uncertainty’ continues, women are too confused and scared to seek advice and are allowing their leaks to impact on their quality of life.
Ms. Dean also warns that although SUI is common, it is not ‘normal’ – a myth perpetuated by the manufacturers – and that women should be encouraged to ask for professional help and not just ‘put up with pads’.
The new survey also reports that 41% of UK women have used an incontinence product to help contain bladder leaks. And, when asked what activities might prompt them to wear an incontinence pad, around one quarter (24%) women would think about using such a product if they were going out socially or on a date.
Nicola Dean, who recommends that women consider a treatment known as ‘bladder neck bulking’ to treat their SUI, says; “Since 2017, we’ve seen a significant drop – 79% – in women coming forward for treatments for incontinence. As a healthcare professional, committed to helping women regain their confidence following a diagnosis of stress urinary incontinence, it worries me that a growing number of women are seemingly avoiding asking for expert help, through fear or misinformation and missing out on the opportunity to explore other successful treatments options.”
“Whether a woman is referred for physiotherapy, pelvic floor exercises, pilates or a procedure, in my opinion no patient should ever simply be sent away and told just to put up with pads.” Indeed, NICE Guidelines advise that “absorbent containment products should be used only as an interim coping strategy while more definitive treatment is awaited.”
Across the industry, it is widely believed by medical experts that overall, procedures carried out for SUI in the UK have dropped from 16,000 annually (2010) to 6,000 (2018), with the start of the decline starting unsurprisingly in 2014 when the international mesh story first broke, then saw a sudden and steady decrease from 2016 onwards (when the scale of the issue reached the UK media).
SUI affects an estimated 30% of women worldwide. Two thirds of women suffering from SUI are undiagnosed. It can occur at any stage of life, with risk factors including pelvic problems from pregnancy, childbirth, obesity, menopause and ageing.
Yet, despite its prevalence and impact on the quality of life, the Control Your Choice campaign has also shown that well over a third of women (39%) say they’d waited up to six months before eventually seeking treatment. A staggering 12% left it for up to five years or more.
Vicki Williams, 45, is mum to a teenage son and works as an Operating Department Practitioner at York Hospital, where she was treated by Nicola Dean for her bladder leak issues in October 2017.
She says; “There really is no need to put up with this problem. Female stress incontinence is extremely common and incontinence pads are really not the only solution – not to mention their negative impact on the planet. I had bladder neck bulking treatment carried out under local anaesthetic, which consisted of three injections into the neck of the bladder and took around 15 mins.
“At the time I’d recently started competing regularly in weightlifting and I found I was leaking a lot at the gym and increasingly in my daily life, so I wanted something done about it. And, I’ve never looked back. In fact, I was able to go home shortly after the procedure and I was back at the gym that evening and achieved a ‘Personal Best’ in dead lifting, without any leakage.”
Bulking agents are a minimally invasive (meaning no cutting of the patient’s tissue or skin), safe and effective treatment for stress urinary incontinence which have been used for over 10 years. The current market leader Bulkamid®(a water-based gel that helps the bladder neck to close when needed to help prevent bladder leaks) has an 80% success rate when used as a first line treatment and to date has successfully treated over 60,000 women.
Vicki concludes; “I hope that by becoming such an advocate of this type of treatment and being prepared to share my experience, more women like me will speak to their GP to discuss what options are open to them too. It is all about their decision, their choice.”