Photo Credit: Missy Lavender
Missy Lavender is the 51-year-old founder and executive director of the Women's Health Foundation in Chicago.
Changes After Childbirth
"Looking back now, I remember that I used to joke in high school that I had a peanut bladder. That was when I first started drinking a lot of diet soda, and I did have to go to the bathroom more often than my friends, but I never thought of it as a problem. It never stopped me from doing things I wanted to do.
"Things really changed after I had my first child when I was 40. I had a lot of nerve damage as a result of the delivery, and I began experiencing both stress incontinence—I would leak when I sneezed or laughed or coughed—and overactive bladder symptoms, including that 'gotta go' feeling, and actually went to the bathroom every 40 to 45 minutes. Often I wouldn't make it there dry. I was wearing a pad all the time.
"I didn't do anything about my symptoms at first. I lived just a couple of blocks from a park (which had no restrooms), and my regular routine at the time was that when my toddler son woke up from his nap, I would pour myself a big diet soda with ice and walk to the park with him while I drank the soda. A little while later I would suddenly think, 'Oh my gosh. I have to go to the bathroom now!' I'd start dashing home but wouldn't make it the two blocks dry."
Many Options, Real Solutions
"Finally I went to a urogynecologist and she had me keep a three-day bladder diary of everything I drank and how often I went to the bathroom. I showed the diary to the doctor and also to a physical therapist. She explained to me that diet soda contains at least three ingredients that may irritate the bladder—caffeine, artificial sweetener and carbonation. She challenged me to stop drinking it. It was hard because I really liked my diet soda, but eventually I weaned myself down to one or two a day, and now it's been four years since I've had one, which has helped to lessen my symptoms.
"After my daughter was born, about two-and-a-half years after my son, my symptoms worsened and I had surgery, which gave support to my bladder and urethra and cleared up my stress incontinence problems. I no longer leak every time I sneeze or laugh or cough, but I do still have my overactive bladder symptoms. I still feel sudden urges and the need to urinate frequently, but I'm getting progressively better at managing those symptoms by using the techniques taught to me by the physical therapist.
"First of all, she taught me pelvic floor exercises, including Kegel exercises, which I do on a regular basis. I can also use them sometimes when I'm feeling the urge to go to the bathroom, even when I know my bladder isn't really full. Sometimes the exercises alone are enough to calm my bladder and lessen the urge. Also, the physical therapist introduced me to an electrical stimulation device, which was life changing. It's a little vaginal probe that is inserted for about 15 minutes, and it gives you a sense of what it's like to properly contract and do a correct Kegel exercise. In fact, for women who have nerve damage, it can even do the Kegel for you, and it really does help reduce the urges and frequency. Your doctor can prescribe it—it is often covered by insurance and there are no side effects.
"The physical therapist also taught me bladder training exercises. When I started with her, I was urinating every 45 minutes. So initially, I continued to do that. Then, I focused on waiting an hour before urinating, and then I got it up to an hour and 15 minutes. Now, I can wait two to three hours between bathroom visits. I can often go the whole night through without getting up at all."
"Women who are experiencing symptoms of overactive bladder need to understand that this is a real condition and there are things you can do. It's very common, but it's not normal. It is not normal to leak urine. It's not normal to have your bladder run your life. It's not normal to go to the bathroom every 30 or 40 minutes or to get up six times a night. Talk to your doctor, or go to the Web site of the American Urological Association Foundation and get a referral to a urologist, or the American Urogynecologic Society Foundation for a urogynecologist. You can feel so powerless when you have this condition, but the truth is that there is so much you can do, starting with the dietary choices you make. I may never drink another diet soda, but that's a choice I'm willing to make."