A Common Concern Veterans Aren't Talking About

Flight attendant cleans aircraft lavatory after a mission
201st Airlift Squadron flight attendant cleans aircraft lavatory after a mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Coda Doyle)

Steve Schwab is the CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to empowering, supporting and honoring America's 5.5 million military caregivers.

Judy Borcherdt, RN, is the clinical services manager at Principle Business Enterprises, manufacturer of Tranquility superabsorbent products for the health care industry.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

When loved ones caring for wounded, ill and injured veterans swap advice online, a topic comes up more than you might think – urinary incontinence. In other words, trouble controlling one's bladder.

No, these caregivers are not necessarily caring for veterans "of a certain age," or those who have suffered particularly severe injuries. In fact, their veterans often believe they are too young and healthy to have a problem with incontinence, so rather than learn more about it, or talk to a medical professional, they just hope that it will go away on its own.

But, in most cases, it doesn't go away; at least, not without taking action to better understand it.

If you are a veteran experiencing this issue – or maybe you know a "buddy" who is – let's take a quick dive into the topic.

First, you should not feel embarrassed or alone. Bones break. Skin gets cut. Joints ache. Your organs are going to experience wear and tear, too. It happens to all of us, even the physically tough men and women of the military. In fact, men ages 55 and younger are three times more likely to report urinary incontinence if they served in uniform. One-third of younger female veterans also report incontinence symptoms. The largest percentage of adults who experience some level of incontinence is actually between the ages of 40 and 64.

In other words, you cannot be too young to deal with this issue.

Also, there are various types of incontinence, so we're not necessarily referring to a complete loss of bladder control, although that can happen. In some cases, it is just an unexpected leak from physical exertion, such as coughing, sneezing or exercising. Maybe you get sudden urges to urinate and cannot get to the bathroom in time. Sometimes, people struggle with the feeling that they cannot fully empty their bladder, while others don't feel the sensation prompting them to go.

The causes for these symptoms vary. Those who have served in the military sometimes experience them due to prolonged periods of holding their urine or restricting their fluids. Veterans also see incontinence triggered by exposure to chemicals, radiation and air pollutants. Post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and depression also can play a factor. Sometimes, temporary incontinence is caused by simple things, such as too much alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks or spicy foods. It also can be linked to a long list of other medical conditions, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and asthma.

If you are experiencing incontinence, the best thing to do is consult a doctor. You may find that the solution to your problem is simply altering your diet or making a few lifestyle changes that lower your risk of contributing factors. There are even simple exercises that you can do to strengthen bladder muscles.

If the problem persists, absorbent products from personal absorbent pads to specially made briefs are available. While some people hesitate to try these products, others find that they are simple tools to keep them feeling confident while carrying out their daily routine. Medications are also available that improve the ability to hold your urine or sense that you have to go, and devices exist for strengthening muscles and allowing you to discreetly empty your bladder, even when you cannot make it to the restroom. In certain situations, surgery could be the most effective treatment. Your doctor can help find the right option for you.

Veterans with Department of Veterans Affairs benefits can get incontinence products as part of their "medical supplies" coverage. Patients can even request that their doctor prescribe the brand that works best for them. If a brand is not available from the local VA, individuals can ask for it to be added to the local VA's formulary.

For veterans and caregivers dealing with incontinence, just know that you are experiencing a very common problem with, potentially, a very simple solution. Talk to your doctor today.

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