More than three quarters of Australians experiencing bladder leakage prefer to put up with the embarrassing problem than seek professional help, new research shows, despite the fact most cases can be prevented, cured or better managed.

Figures released by the Continence Foundation of Australia ahead of World Continence Week (June 20-26) show 76 per cent of people with incontinence (4.8 million adults nationally) have not sought help for the problem from a health professional, with more than two thirds (68%) saying they did not consider it a serious health issue, and almost one in five people (19%) too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone, including their GP.

The survey also found:

  • 43 per cent avoid situations that can lead to leakage, including exercising and sports, lifting things, or visiting places without nearby toilets;
  • just 2 per cent performed pelvic floor muscle exercises the recommended three times a day;
  • 55 per cent would never discuss bladder and bowel control issues with friends;
  • 12 per cent would prefer to use products such as pads than seek help; and
  • incontinence was most prevalent in younger years, with the average age affected 41 years old.

Continence Foundation chief executive Rowan Cockerell said although incontinence was a common issue, it was disappointing those affected did not think the issue serious enough to seek treatment for, mistakenly considering it a normal part of having a baby or ageing and something you have to put up with.

“Incontinence might be common but in most cases it can be prevented, cured or better managed. Any bladder or bowel leakage, no matter how light, is classified as incontinence, and should be addressed by a health professional specialised in this area. Leaving the problem won’t solve it and can result in the problem becoming worse,” Ms Cockerell said.

“People don’t consider it a serious health issue but these same people are restricting their lifestyle to accommodate the problem, avoiding social situations or activities that could result in unwanted leakage.

“It’s time we lifted the lid on this little-discussed issue by encouraging community conversation and raising expectations about better bladder and bowel health outcomes. People need to recognise they have a legitimate health complaint that requires specialised treatment.”

Despite the common myth that incontinence only affects older people, the average age of the survey respondents was 41 years old. A 2011 Access Economics study commissioned by the Continence Foundation found that more than half the women with incontinence are under 50 years old.

“The common perception that incontinence is an issue restricted to the elderly population is wrong and it’s time people took their head out of the sand and stopped ignoring their problem just because they don’t feel they fit the age bracket,” Ms Cockerell said.

She said World Continence Week was the ideal time for people to take the initiative and book an appointment with their GP or phone the Foundation’s free, confidential National Continence Helpline (1800 33 00 66) to address a very treatable problem.

The National Continence Helpline (1800 33 00 66) is staffed 8am-8pm Monday to Friday by Nurse Continence Specialists who provide advice, referrals and resources to consumers and health professionals.