Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: Are you one funny joke away from a change of pants?

Dr. Michael Staley is a board-certified urologist with Coastal Carolina Urology in Beaufort.
Dr. Michael Staley is a board-certified urologist with Coastal Carolina Urology in Beaufort. Submitted photo

This week, Dr. Michael Staley, a board-certified urologist with Coastal Carolina Urology in Beaufort, explains why we might have trouble controlling our bladders when something is just too funny.

Question. When a joke is really hilarious you often hear people say "Stop! I'm going to wet my pants!" Why do people experience incontinence -- an involuntary leakage of urine -- when they laugh or sneeze, or even just as they age? Should they talk to a doctor? How can this be treated or prevented?

Answer. Well, it's no laughing matter. Incontinence affects many women and, to a lesser extent, men. It is more common as we age but can occur at any time and may limit what we can do because of embarrassing leakage.

In addition, urinary issues like incontinence represent a significant health cost for the population as a whole. It can affect our self-image and confidence, too.

Incontinence comes in two varieties. There is "stress incontinence" which is due to laughing or sneezing. Basically, leakage occurs when the pressure in the belly is more than what the urethra -- the urine tube leading out of the bladder -- can stand. This is what happens when you laugh or sneeze and leak.

Another type of incontinence is what we call "urge incontinence." This happens when the bladder contracts and forces urine out. People may describe a sudden urge to urinate, and they simply cannot make it in time to the bathroom. Sometimes both types of incontinence may be present.

Women are more likely to experience urinary incontinence because their anatomy predisposes them to leakage of urine. Also, hormonal changes, childbirth and aging make leakage more common for women. When considering if one needs to see a doctor, women should consider how much the leakage affects their day-to-day life and whether it keeps them from taking part in any activities they like.

Men with incontinence, on the other hand, should see their doctor as it may represent a more serious problem.

The good news is that urinary incontinence can be treated. It may be as simple as behavioral changes (no, you don't have to quit laughing), special exercises and medicines. In some cases it may involve surgery.

And, that's no joke.

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