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Anniki Sommerville


Anniki Sommerville is a published author of 5 books including 3 non-fiction books - How to Be a Boss at Ageing, More Orgasms Please and The Big Quit. She regularly writes for Red magazine and Grazia on women's health, ageing and more.

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Smashing the taboo around incontinence in sport

Incontinence and bladder weakness are still considered a taboo in sport. Many female athletes don't talk about it because they're fearful of being judged. However the more we talk about the issue, the less of a taboo it continues to be.

Incontinence and bladder weakness is an issue that can feel like it's chiefly associated with older women rather than something that can impact women at any age.

In fact, some of Britain’s top female athletes have experienced incontinence in the past. What is also clear is that incontinence is not limited to one particular segment of the sporting world. Gymnasts, rugby players and dancers have all experienced incontinence whilst pursuing their sporting passion.

Thankfully these stories are being shared more regularly now which helps normalise the experience of bladder weakness and make it feel less of a taboo.

It also underlines the message that incontinence can impact on women at any age and it’s nothing to feel isolated or ashamed of. If elite sports women have experienced incontinence then we perhaps realise the need to move the narrative on, and give all women the medical and emotional support they need (and products that can help them navigate the journey too.)

Gymnasts and incontinence

Team GB Laura Gallagher Cox is a trampolinist and alongside her team mate Izzy Songhurst shared her experience of stress incontinence in an interview with 'The Telegraph,' newspaper. She reported that gymnasts often have to wear incontinence pads whilst in the midst of a competition, or even go to the bathroom multiple times (sometimes up to 5 times in one session).

This of course impacts on their sporting performance as they experience worry that perhaps they will leak, and that this leakage might be spotted by other competitors.

Can you imagine trying to focus on a big competition but worrying about leaking at the same time? Incontinence can occur for a myriad of reasons but for high impact sports like gymnastics it can be because of the downward pressure placed on the pelvic floor. This fear can be valid as Laura explains in the interview: "I’ve been at competitions where I’ve seen girls pee as they take off – when they do a double back somersault you’ll genuinely see urine flying through the air."

Laura (who won the 2017 British National Championship) also recalled an incident when she was 15 years old, and she wet herself as she landed from a jump. This made her feel ashamed because she was aware that people around her had seen what had happened. Again if we don't remove the taboo around bladder weakness, more young women will feel ashamed too, and this could impact on their performance at competition level.

Rugby players and incontinence

It's not only gymnastics where female athletes have to navigate incontinence. Rugby is another sport where women can be impacted by it too. 

The head physiotherapist of the Welsh female team Jo Perkins was quoted in a BBC article saying that she had uncovered the fact that many of the female players had bouts of incontinence too. When she looked into the issue she said the causes were chiefly stress incontinence and players leaking when they were being tackled or when they were jumping in the air. 

In the article, Jo Perkins said: "I've worked with women outside of elite sport and this isn't just something that's reserved for women that have had children. If anything, the more women I see in sport haven't had children and are suffering with this.”

Perkin’s worry is that women will leave sport or simply put up with incontinence in silence and wear a pad (not seek medical support or look into physio and other options). Again the taboo has an impact on women in sport as it means more women leave versus competing and many feel a stigma that simply doesn't need to be there.

"It's not just impact sports this is happening with,’ Perkins says, Pilates: women are leaking. Swimming: women are leaking. So this is a huge, huge problem. This is a massive feminist issue that we need to treat as if we had a pandemic of hamstring strains within a team."

Perkins also sees this issue as being part of sports medicine, and therefore needs to be taken more seriously: "Incontinence signifies pressure is going the wrong way. So if that's happening you're not going to run as fast, or push as heavy in a scrum, or go in as hard into a tackle. So that's then got huge performance implications.”

Another sport that can be impacted by incontinence issues is dance.

Dancers and incontinence

A recent article references a unique study led by Arati Mahishale from the Kaher Institute of Physiotherapy. It specifically looked into the incidence of incontinence in dancers, compared to that in non-dancers of the same age group in Belagavi.

The study was published in the ‘Research Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology,' in 2018, with the aim of finding out if there was a correlation between incontinence, type of dance, the intensity of dance, and the BMI of dancers. 

The study found that 22.5 per cent of female dancers had urinary incontinence. Of the 62 dancers who participated in the study, 14 reported suffering from urinary incontinence.

They also said that they experienced urinary incontinence more in the colder months. Interestingly the type of dance also shaped whether the incidence of incontinence too.

50 per cent of hip-hop dancers and 28 per cent of Bharatnatyam dancers (an Indian classical dance form), showed a higher incidence of urinary incontinence compared to other dancers. This is possibly because these forms of dance demand movements which lead to increased flexibility of the lower body and limbs, eventually causing incontinence. 

Overall it's important for us to share these stories of women in the public eye.

Through increased sharing we normalise incontinence and bladder weakness and women will be encouraged to seek medical support.

At the end of the day incontinence should not be a barrier to having a great life or achieving what you want- whether you want to be an athlete gymnast or just go for a run to keep your aerobic fitness in check.

To read more about celebrities who have talked publicly about bladder weakness and incontinence check this Jude article out.

Photograph is of Cerys Hale, Laura Gallagher Cox & Izzy Songhurst

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