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Saturday, 15 September, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Scientists work to tackle incontinence
Stress incontinence is common in women after childbirth
Stress incontinence is common in women after childbirth
One in 10 people are affected by urinary incontinence.

Scientists are now working to try and find out why they develop the condition, and whether new ways can be found to help them.

The common myth about incontinence is that it only affects the elderly.

In reality, many younger people are also affected, though they are embarrassed to talk about it.

Among 15-64 year-olds, about 5% of males, and up to 25% of females suffer from incontinence.

The condition affects more than a third of women over 60.

People with incontinence feel helpless. It's taboo

Dr Mark Hollywood, Queen's University, Belfast
In total, it is estimated that about 3m people in the UK cannot control their bladders properly, twice as many as suffer from diabetes - although many more may suffer in silence.

But doctors say research into incontinence often struggles to attract funding.

Dr Mark Hollywood, of the Smooth Muscle Group at Belfast University, is involved in a 106,000 research study funded by the charity Action Research.

He said incontinence could have devastating consequences for younger people, disrupting the way they lived their lives.

"Although a physical problem, incontinence often comes with huge emotional baggage," Dr Hollywood said.

"Following successful treatment many patients manage to lead normal lives, but others often feel trapped in their own home.

"Young mothers in particular tend to try and adjust their lifestyle accordingly, and because of the associated embarrassment they may no longer have a social life.

"They may also stop doing things like taking their children to the park or the local swimming pool, which is a great shame."

He added: "People with incontinence feel helpless. It's taboo. We are trying to break that taboo.

"It happens to hundreds of thousands of people, who tend to suffer in silence."

Cell 'communication'

Over the next three years, the Belfast-based research, announced at the start of National Continence Awareness Week, will study urethra samples taken from patients with incontinence.

The tube drains urine from the bladder, but sometimes it malfunctions and loses its normal control.

Dr Hollywood said: "We don't even know how the urethra functions normally. We want to provide an explanation."

He and his colleagues will look at the mechanisms controlling the urethral muscle.

They are also the only group looking at how electrical signals sent between single cells affect urethral function.

Mr Ian Walsh, a consultant urologist at Belfast City Hospital who specialises in treating people with incontinence, is also taking part in the research.

He told BBC News Online he was seeing more and more people with the problem.

Many types

There are many different types and possible causes of urinary incontinence.

People likely to suffer from the condition included men who have had surgery to treat an enlarged prostrate.

Women who have gone through childbirth or the menopause can suffer from stress incontinence, which occurs when pelvic floor muscles have been damaged.

The bladder can leak during exercise, laughter, coughing, sneezing, or any movement which puts pressure on it.

A paper published in the British Medical Journal on Friday suggested pelvic exercises could help women who suffer urinary incontinence after childbirth.

Urge incontinence, where people cannot "hold on", is often caused by illness and is common in older people.

As well as women who have gone through childbirty, other patients suffering from urinary incontinence can be given non-invasive treatment - including pelvic floor exercises - to improve bladder control.

Patients who do not respond to non-invasive treatments are offered surgery.

See also:

16 Sep 01 | Health
'I feel so alone'
26 Feb 99 | Health
Incontinence: no laughing matter
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