Call it what you will, there is a one in three chance that women reading this will suffer problems of this sort. They will probably keep it secret, won't confide in friends, will believe there is no cure and that it's the price women pay for being mothers.
So to share the secret that you suffer from occasional, unintentional leakage of urine takes some courage. To divulge this on national television takes real guts. Yet that's what Sharon Glen did and, yes, she consulted her partner and four kids before exposing her secret, all of whom gave their wholehearted blessing. Rewarding the brave, Sharon was actually introduced to a self-help device that not only cured the leakage problem, it allows her to have more fun with the kids and improved her sex life. Result!
Like so many millions of women in this country, Sharon never talked about her secret problem and routinely wore panty liners, in case of sudden loss of bladder control when shopping, say, or travelling. Leakage is so common that complete ladies sports teams are known to wear protective pads during games; while everyday actions like coughing, sneezing, laughing, lifting something heavy or running for a bus can have unfortunate results for countless women. Then there's the dreaded ‘back garden bladder tester', the trampoline. Forget jogging or sport, when women of all ages jump on the kids' trampoline, they soon discover it's the ultimate leak tester. It has happened to Sharon, a sudden dramatic need to visit the loo, but now she is able to bounce about with the best of them.
Sharon, who originally hails from Fife, lives in Stevenage with her partner Ian and younger children, Craig (17), Clair (11) and David (7), and is a qualified fitter of printed circuit boards, although she is also training as a more ‘girly' nail technician. She has experienced stress incontinence since giving birth to her first child Jamie (18), who is now living in Scotland, having neglected to listen to her midwife's advice about pelvic floor muscle exercises, she admits. The pelvic floor muscles are contracted to start and stop urinary flow and, properly exercised and toned, will actually help prevent unwanted leakage and, as an added bonus, increase the intensity of orgasm for both partners. Which is a win-win situation.
Ironically, weakened pelvic floor muscles are ‘nature's gift' to women. Their muscles have much further to span than men's, they are five times more likely to suffer problems and their pelvic floors are affected by fluctuating hormones during pregnancy, the menstrual cycle and menopause. Also, carrying a baby puts extra stress on pelvic floor muscles and damage can obviously occur during childbirth. Although general ageing is a factor, girls as young as 18 can suffer from symptoms.
Tired of carrying her own secret burden, Sharon did what few others would do and wrote to Channel 4's challenging healthcare advice programme, Embarrassing Bodies, and volunteered to be quizzed on the topic of stress incontinence. Invited to Birmingham for filming, she was one of only three women invited to test different self-help therapeutic devices, for toning up the pelvic muscles. She was chosen to try out Neen's Aquaflex vaginal cones, one of the most widely used pelvic exercise systems. The product consists of small, plastic cone-shaped weights that are inserted into the vagina and cause the pelvic floor muscles to contract around them, holding them in place. "I'm so glad that was the one I got to test," says Sharon.
"I achieved the biggest improvement in pelvic muscle performance, with a 60% increase in just six weeks. Quite frankly, it's one of the best things I ever did and I would recommend Aquaflex to anyone." On screen, she was positively ecstatic: "I felt it made a big difference. My partner noticed the change and it has definitely improved our sex life," she enthused to a million or so viewers. "I don't dribble as much as I used to and I'm absolutely over the moon with the result."
Naturally, Sharon was nervous about the possible response from friends and neighbours, when the show was screened. Worried that her son's mates might rib him, she discussed her concerns with Craig, who replied that if anyone raised the subject he'd say, "My mum's admitted she had a problem, your mum's probably got the same, but won't admit it." Wise words from a teenager. She needn't have worried, since the next day, picking up David from school, she was surrounded by other mums, many of whom had never spoken to her before: "They wanted to know ‘was it really you on the telly?', ‘does it really work?' and ‘where can I get it?'."
That response must have been echoed in playgrounds and workplaces around the country, since the day after screening Neen's online shop had completely run out of stock, necessitating fresh supplies to be produced fast. This sell-out situation and other feedback suggested that, while millions of women share an unspoken secret, very few of them realised there was a cure, other than the ‘band aids' of pads and panty liners. The improved sex life seemed to be a bonus too!
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Meantime, Sharon continued her 20 minute daily routine for the recommended twelve weeks and now uses the cones regularly, once or twice a week. She found the instructions ‘perfectly easy to understand' and that the cones were easy and discreet to use when going about her day-to-day routines, even being comfortable enough with them inserted to pop to the car or hang out the washing.
"It's a one-off purchase and you get all the benefits, as well as saving yourself a small fortune on panty liners and absorbent pads. I used to buy them quite often - even more when I had a cold, with all that sneezing and coughing causing embarrassing leaks and dribbles - but not now," she says. "Basically, I don't have a problem any more. The kids have noticed a difference, I do a lot more with them nowadays and play with our dogs in the park. I couldn't do that before. I can even go on the trampoline!"
Once she has qualified as a nail technician, to go alongside certificates for PCB soldering and assembly, and opened a salon in her spare room, it's quite possible that Sharon will be providing informal consultations on stress incontinence to her female clients. Meantime, Neen, which already had clinical studies to show that 70% of cases of stress incontinence can be cured or improved using vaginal cones, is delighted to find a ‘real live woman' willing to talk openly about the problem, helping to bring the secret of leakage out into the, er, open.