Demystifying Incontinence

The fear started to set in after a couple of moments. There I was, a 34-year-old woman doing jumping jacks in front of a class of 7-year-olds, pleading my pelvic floor to hold on so that I wouldn’t pee all over the school yard.

This was about a month ago now…and the last time I tried doing any sort of open-legged jumping I needed to change my pants. I am one of the many people, who, for a variety of reasons, suffers from incontinence.

If you are anything like I was, you are not too familiar with the term “pelvic floor”. Sure I’d heard of kegels, exercises meant to tighten you up down there, but my limited understanding of “working out” this region came from pop culture references like Cosmo and Sex and the City. Popular media would have us believe that strong pelvic floor muscles are only good for better orgasms, not to prevent public peeing.

Turns out, the pelvic floor is a wondrous set of muscles that provides support to the bladder, uterus, rectum and vagina, helping to control the flow of gas, stool and urine, among other things. If you want to flaunt your pelvic floor strength, do a jumping jack…carefree. You see, jumping jacks, yoga, running, laughing, sneezing, coughing and even sex are advanced moves for those of us with incontinence issues. The last two years have left me with a number of stories that have kept me wondering if my pelvic floor would ever be strong and continent again.

It all started for me in the summer of 2015 when I vaginally birthed my son into this world. I considered myself fortunate to be able to do so. I was amazed by the strength of my vagina and what it could do. Yes there was tearing, second degree tearing of the vaginal wall to be exact. But a couple of stitches down there is pretty common after a vaginal birth. So too is pain during intercourse, and both urinary and bowel incontinence.

“Engage Captain Anus!” she would shout as we danced and moved and tightened with all our womanly might.

I thought incontinence was not something I was going to have to worry about. I was a healthy 33- year-old woman. I went to prenatal yoga classes with an amazing teacher who taught us about the importance of the pelvic floor. “Engage Captain Anus!” she would shout as we danced and moved and tightened with all our womanly might.

She emphasized the benefits of both engaging and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles. She urged us all to get to know our vaginas and go see a pelvic floor physiotherapist. Pelvic floor physiotherapists are registered physiotherapists who specialize in the treatment of pelvic health concerns. Since weak pelvic floor muscles are one of the main causes of incontinence, one of the things these specialists can offer is a personalized exercise program for your pelvic floor.

Determined to get strong so I wouldn’t pee myself post-birth, I followed my yoga teacher’s advice – I practiced my pelvic floor exercises at home on a semi-regular basis. I saw a pelvic floor physio. I thought I was in good shape.

Things were going beautifully with my bladder control until 3 months postpartum. It had been an epic beach day and I was walking up the forested path with my sister, each of us carrying a buttload of beach “essentials” and babies strapped to our chests. All of a sudden, I had an unexpected and hilarious fall and things went flying everywhere (baby was fine). This situation was just too much for my pelvic floor muscles and I wet myself. The hysterical laughing fit that ensued left both my sis and I sitting in puddles of our own pee in the middle of the forest…which made us laugh and pee even more.

This incident was really a “best case scenario” as far as public pants-peeing goes. Incontinence is usually no laughing matter. Worrying about what an oncoming sneeze or cough might bring with it is stressful to say the least. So I got my booty back to my pelvic floor physiotherapist for a tune up.

Kegels are harder than they seem and take practice to do them right. I considered my physio as my personal trainer. She did an internal exam to make sure I was doing the kegels properly. She used an ultrasound machine to show me when I was lifting and engaging the whole pelvic floor and when my tightening was a mere flutter. She gave me an exercise routine with sets and reps of kegels done in different ways. I was highly motivated to get my pelvic floor back in shape.

And it worked! No more pee pee problems for a good year. Then came flu season and its onslaught left me sneezing and coughing from Halloween to Christmas. Again, I was finding it harder to stay in control of my bladder and little dribbles were coming out when I least expected. I didn’t even want to try any advanced moves.

When I returned to physio, she told me that continual sneezing and coughing can weaken the pelvic floor muscles leading to leakage. “Stress Incontinence” as it is called, can also occur in women that have never given birth, and in men for that matter.

So with the help of my pelvic floor physiotherapist, I went back on my exercise regimen. Whenever I thought about it, I engaged “Captain Anus” and the rest of the gang down there. I began slowly building up my strength and stamina until I could hold my pelvic floor muscles strong and tight for 30 seconds.

Back in the schoolyard with my class of 7-year-olds, I kept on jumping. The stamina and strength I’d developed in my pelvic floor over the last couple months was secretly being showcased. I smiled, a proud grin spreading across my face. Here I was, doing jumping jacks in front of a whole class of kids, and not peeing myself.

Jen Labelle is a teacher and a mother who lives in the Pacific Northwest. She aspires to make the world a better place, one student at a time. In her free time she enjoys walking her dog in the forest and taking ocean baths.