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Urinary Incontinence:  Millions of Women Suffer In Silence
National Survey Shows Lack of Knowledge and Communication Forces Women to Live With Discomfort and Embarrassment

(NAFC, Spartanburg, SC, May 30, 2002) - A recent survey of more than 1,000 American women conducted by Harris Interactive for the National Association for Continence (NAFC) found significant misconceptions and lack of awareness about stress urinary incontinence (SUI), the most common type of urinary incontinence, or bladder leakage. The number of sufferers of stress incontinence, the involuntary leakage of urine brought on by abdominal "stress" or pressure as a result of laughing, coughing, sneezing, physical activity, is difficult to quantify because most women do not seek treatment. Yet the survey showed that the problem affects nearly one third of American women over the age of 18.

The NAFC survey examined current attitudes and awareness of stress incontinence among sufferers as well as women in general.  NAFC found that very few women recognize stress urinary incontinence (SUI) as a legitimate medical condition.  Eight out of 10 women mistakenly thought that the symptoms were a normal part of aging. 

"Involuntary urine leakage can strike women in the prime of their lives.  Whether a woman is 30 or 60, she needs to be made aware of the fact that urine leakage is not normal.  Urine leakage at any age is not acceptable," said Nancy Muller, Executive Director of the National Association for Continence.  "Unfortunately, because the onset of symptoms is often gradual, many women learn to adjust and only wait until their symptoms become truly unbearable before seeking any help."

Prevalence of Stress Incontinence

Stress urinary incontinence is the most common form of urinary incontinence.  It is a condition that primarily affects women.  One quarter of the women surveyed, age 18 and older,reported experiencing leakage symptoms in the past month.  Previous research suggested that the prevalence might be as high as one third of American women over the age of eighteen. 

Other key findings included several myths and misconceptions:

  • Women mistakenly indicated that having too much sex and drinking too much water puts them at risk for developing these symptoms.
  • Over half believe that stress incontinence symptoms affect only women over 50.
  • 40% of women with the condition reported that they began experiencing symptoms before age 40.
  • One in three women are not aware that the primary cause of stress incontinence is childbirth.

Pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of stress urinary incontinence.  Other causes of stress incontinence include nerve and muscle damage, pelvic and abdominal surgery, and general loss of pelvic muscle tone.  Obesity, smoking, constipation, menopause and lung disease can also contribute to or put a woman at risk for stress incontinence.

Doctor-Patient Communications

NAFC found that many women affected by the condition have never talked with a physician about the problem or have waited more than a year before consulting a doctor. Many of these women are not even talking to their family and friends. The majority of women simply learn to tolerate their symptoms because they think this is something that is supposed to happen to them. 

"Doctors need to know that embarrassment is a major issue for women with stress urinary incontinence," said Dr. Nicolette Horbach, Associate Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at George Washington University Medical Center and a practicing physician.  "I personally suffered from stress incontinence following the birth of my son, which made it difficult for me to get down on the floor and run and play with him.  I tell my patients embarrassment shouldn't stop you from living your life."

Coping Mechanisms

"We receive calls from women every day whose lives have been totally disrupted by stress incontinence. It affects careers, relationships and a woman's overall sense of herself," said Muller.  "Sufferers tend to isolate themselves because they're afraid of going out and having an accident in public.  Many cope with the symptoms by always wearing sanitary pads and avoiding favorite activities, like exercising, gardening or picking up a child.  Women should not have to live this way."

 "Stress urinary incontinence disrupts your life in little and big ways - from having to wear dark clothes all the time to affecting intimacy," said Carolann Zuchowski, who suffered from SUI for five years before seeking help. "I remember one time I was dancing and, all of a sudden, my pants were soaked.  At that point I figured my life had changed forever, and my dancing days were numbered."

Knowledge About Options

Research demonstrates that the large majority of women can be helped if they are properly diagnosed and seek treatment.  Ignorance about options lies at the heart of so many millions avoiding corrective action.  New insights into how the central nervous system functions are leading to discoveries both in medical devices and pharmaceuticals for the treatment of stress urinary incontinence. The most important thing a woman can do is take the initiative to get educated, seek preventive steps and explore new advances in treatment as they are proven clinically and become commercially available. 

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