Gemma Collins was sitting in her manager’s office in central London last September when she was overtaken by a coughing attack.
The media figure, well known for her performances on reality TV series such as The Only Way Is Essex and Dancing On Ice, tried to concentrate on the matter, but her mind was elsewhere.
“I had been coughing and cold for a while,” she confesses, fearful of the repercussions. Sure enough, the violent coughing spell resulted in a humiliating spill.
“It was like opening the floodgates,” she candidly says.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened. She was home a few weeks earlier when she experienced her first bladder leak after a violent coughing fit.
Media personality Gemma Collins got an embarrassing leak in her manager’s central London office that made her feel ‘dirty’
She said, “It made me feel dirty. I am a very hygienic person anyway, but no adult likes to pee his pants’
‘Suddenly it was as if my water had broken; maybe I had a baby. . .’ she jokes now. But at the time it wasn’t funny.
“It made me feel dirty. I’m a very hygienic person anyway, but no adult likes to pee his pants.’
A few weeks after that first episode, she was bouncing on a trampoline with her two nephews “laughing like crazy,” and the same thing happened.
Soon after that business meeting in London took place, the first time there had been a public leak.
“I felt uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally,” she says.
“I was ashamed and afraid that what happened would be obvious to everyone.”
The problem did not go away. “Eventually I woke up one day and decided this had to stop. I went to my local pharmacy to see what products were on offer. Now, here I am, 42 years old, happy with a pad to catch any leaks.”
Urinary incontinence is common, affecting an estimated seven million women in the UK, although accurate statistics are hard to come by because so many women are hesitant to talk about their problem.
It can occur at any time, although it becomes more common with age.
“What Gemma is experiencing is something called stress incontinence, caused by a weakening of the pelvic floor below her bladder, bowel and uterus causing urine to leak,” explains Myra Robson, pelvic physiotherapist at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust in South London. .
This usually happens as a result of childbirth. The weight of carrying a baby weakens the pelvic floor, the hammock-like band of muscle that runs from the pelvis at the front to the tailbone at the back that helps keep the entrance to the bladder tightly closed. Under pressure – during a coughing fit, for example – urine can leak.
But while it’s a common problem for mothers, it can also affect people like Gemma who haven’t had children.
Chronic constipation, severe coughing, significant weight gain over an extended period of time, and lifting heavy weights at the gym can also cause it, explains Myra Robson.
These all create pressure in the abdomen, which in turn puts pressure on the bladder and, ‘unless the pelvic floor provides the necessary support’, can lead to leakage, adds Gill Davey, a continence nurse for Bladder Health UK.
“Gemma’s experience is very common,” she says. “The problem can worsen with age and especially after menopause when the body no longer naturally produces the estrogen that helps strengthen the pelvic floor, which is wrapped around the urethra.” [the tube that exits the bladder] and has an opening and closing mechanism known as the sphincter.
“When pelvic floor plumpness is weakened by a lack of estrogen, it is [the sphincter] will not always close efficiently.’
The cause in Gemma’s case is not clear.
In 2015, then 34 years old, she underwent a highly publicized non-surgical procedure to rejuvenate her labia – “a designer vagina” – but she has been assured that, as a cosmetic treatment, it had no effect on her pelvic floor. Whatever the cause, she’s been very open about her problem.
If you found a missionary zeal in Gemma’s message, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
“Up to one in five women suffer from a bladder leak,” she says, “but far too many of them don’t seek help. It’s a taboo subject.’
Indeed, research shows that it takes an average of six years for a woman with stress incontinence to seek help, says Myra Robson.
“Still, one in three women will experience bladder leakage in her life.” She blames the “shame factor.”
In 2015, then 34 years old, she underwent a highly publicized non-surgical procedure to rejuvenate her labia – “a designer vagina” (pictured May 13)
Although it is a common problem for mothers, it can also affect people like Gemma who have not had children
“The fact is, it’s not normal,” she says. “Wetting yourself is not acceptable, so don’t suffer in silence. There is help out there. This is something you can take control of, something that will help you live your life to the full again.”
Gemma sought advice from her mother, Joan, “who has suffered from leaks for years, much worse than mine, and I’ve asked her all about it,” she says. She also brought up the subject on her social media.
She says she hasn’t considered surgery: “You can have mesh inserted to provide an extra layer of support under your bladder. But I’ve read too many horror stories about gauze soiling a woman’s body.’
Instead, she focuses on pelvic floor exercises.
“What the leaks made me realize is that I need to do pelvic exercises regularly, like every woman, every day,” Gemma told Good Health.
“As you get older, your muscles start to go south down there and need regular strengthening.”
“I taught myself what to do by reading online. You may not be able to cure it completely, but you can dramatically reduce leakage if you work on tightening the muscles down there.”
Gemma sought advice from her mother, Joan, “who has suffered from leaks for years, much worse than mine, and I asked her all about it”
Gemma Collins with Sam Smith. She said, “After doing regular pelvic floor exercises for about two months, I’ve reduced the number of bladder leaks I suffer from.”
(Properly strengthening the pelvic floor muscles can lead to a more than 80 percent improvement in stress incontinence, says Myra Robson.)
Adds Gemma, “Now that I’ve been doing regular pelvic floor exercises for about two months now, I’ve reduced the number of bladder leaks I’m experiencing. In fact, I haven’t had a leak since March.’
Gemma also says she relies on pads (she’s now a paid ambassador for the Always Discreet brand).
“You can get them as an integral part of specialty briefs — they come up to a size 22 — or to slip into your own underwear,” she says.
‘Hay fever season has arrived and that means I will be sneezing a lot. I refuse a cortisone shot because steroids make me bloat.
‘But I don’t have to worry about leaks when I sneeze, because a pad combined with regular exercise means I can sneeze to my heart’s content.
“It’s all about trust. And no, it has not affected my sex life in any way.
“I live my life to the fullest as if every day is going to be my last and I don’t let an embarrassing leak stop me from doing what I want to do — whether it’s riding a bike or going on an active vacation or shaking my ass on the dance floor .’
And in a tagline true to her reality star status, she adds, “I want to be able to live my best life.”
“Women don’t have to feel trapped by a leaky bladder,” she says. “Too often we get a raw deal. In the end, it comes down to speaking up with confidence to get what we want.”
For tips on pelvic floor exercises, visit alwaysdiscreet.co.uk; Bladder Health UK helpline: 0121 702 0820.
How to protect your pelvic floor
Pelvic floor exercises involve squeezing and lifting your pelvic floor — it should feel like you’re about to pass wind in a social situation, and you tighten the muscles around the back passage to avoid embarrassment, says pelvic physical therapist Myra Robson.
“Or imagine you stop peeing halfway through as if you were taking a urine test.”
There are two types of pelvic floor exercises, she explains.
“Hold a slow one for about ten seconds at first, relax in between, and repeat ten times.
“The fast consists of squeezing and releasing at a rate of one per second, again ten times. All adult women should train their pelvic floor three times a day for the rest of their lives.’
But if for some reason you can’t feel your muscles when you do these exercises or you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, she recommends seeing a pelvic physical therapist through a referral from your primary care doctor.
Or download the Squeezy app, developed by physiotherapists and available for £2.99 on iPhone and Android.
And try to protect your pelvic floor. Continence nurse Gill Davey goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of good urination habits to reduce the strain.
“Make sure you empty your bladder completely,” she says. “Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep everything functioning properly.
“Also, don’t strain if you want to empty your bowels, as that can damage those areas and loosen the pelvic floor.”
Gemma Collins reveals how she has solved the all-too-common problem of incontinence