Sitting in her manager’s office in central London last September, Gemma Collins was seized by a coughing fit.
The media personality — best known for a string of reality TV show appearances, starting with The Only Way Is Essex and Dancing On Ice — tried to concentrate on the matter in hand, but her mind was elsewhere.
‘I’d had a cough and a cold for some time,’ she explains, and she feared the consequences. Sure enough, the intense coughing fit caused an embarrassing leak.
‘It was as if the floodgates had opened,’ she says frankly.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened. A few weeks earlier she was at home when she experienced her first bladder leak after an intense bout of coughing.
Media personality Gemma Collins suffered an embarrassing leak in her manager’s central London office, leaving her feeling ‘dirty’
She said: ”It made me feel dirty. I’m a very hygienic person anyway, but no adult likes wetting themselves’
‘Suddenly, it was like my waters had broken; perhaps I was having 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 wetting themselves.’
A couple of weeks after that first episode, she was jumping up and down on a trampoline with her two nephews ‘laughing like mad’, and the same thing happened.
Soon after came that business meeting in London, the first time a leak had happened in public.
‘I was uncomfortable, both physically but also emotionally,’ she says.
‘I was embarrassed and fearful that what was happening would be plain for everyone to see.’
The problem didn’t go away. ‘In the end, I woke up one day and made up my mind that this had to stop. I went into my local pharmacy to see what products were on offer. Now, here I am, aged 42, happily wearing a pad to absorb 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 about talking about their problem.
It can occur at any time, although it becomes more common with age.
‘What Gemma experiences is something called stress incontinence, triggered by a weakening of the pelvic floor beneath her bladder, bowels and womb which causes urine to leak out,’ explains Myra Robson, a pelvic health physiotherapist at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust in South London.
This typically occurs 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 pelvic bone at the front to the tail bone at the back and which helps keep the entrance to the bladder firmly shut. When under pressure — for example, during a coughing fit — urine can leak.
Yet while it’s a common problem for mothers, it can also affect those like Gemma who haven’t had children.
Chronic constipation, severe coughing, a significant increase in weight over a sustained period, and lifting heavy weights in the gym, can also trigger it, explains Myra Robson.
These all cause pressure in the abdomen, in turn putting pressure on the bladder and, ‘unless the pelvic floor is giving the requisite support’, it can lead to leaks, adds Gill Davey, a continence nurse for Bladder Health UK.
‘Gemma’s experience is very usual,’ she says. ‘The problem can be exacerbated with age and particularly after the menopause when the body is no longer naturally producing the oestrogen 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 the plumpness of the pelvic floor is weakened from lack of oestrogen, it [the sphincter] won’t always close efficiently.’
The cause in Gemma’s case is not clear.
In 2015, then aged 34, she underwent a well-publicised non-surgical procedure to rejuvenate her labia — ‘a designer vagina’ — but she’s 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 should detect a missionary zeal in Gemma’s message, you wouldn’t be far wrong.
‘Up to one in five women suffer from bladder leaks,’ she says, ‘but far too many of them don’t seek help. It’s a taboo subject.’
Indeed research shows that it takes, on average, six years for a woman with stress incontinence to seek help, says Myra Robson.
‘And yet, one in three women will experience bladder leakage in their lives.’ She blames the ’embarrassment factor’.
In 2015, then aged 34, she underwent a well-publicised non-surgical procedure to rejuvenate her labia — ‘a designer vagina’ (pictured May 13)
While it’s a common problem for mothers, it can also affect those like Gemma who haven’t had children
‘The fact is that it’s not normal,’ she says. ‘Wetting yourself is not acceptable, so don’t just suffer in silence. There is help out there. This is something you can take control of, something that will help you go back to living your life to the full.’
Gemma sought advice from her mother, Joan, ‘who has suffered from leaks, much worse than mine, for years and I asked her all about them’, she says. She also broached the subject on her social media.
She says she didn’t consider surgery: ‘You can have mesh inserted to provide an extra layer of support beneath your bladder. But I’ve read too many horror stories of mesh mucking up a woman’s body.’
Instead she’s focused on pelvic floor exercises.
‘What the leaks made me realise is that I need to do regular pelvic exercises, as should every woman, every day,’ Gemma told Good Health.
‘As you get older, your muscles down there start heading south and need regular strengthening.’
‘I taught myself what to do by reading online. You might not be able to cure it completely but you can dramatically reduce leakage if you work at tightening the muscles down there.’
Gemma sought advice from her mother, Joan, ‘who has suffered from leaks, much worse than mine, for years and I asked her all about them’
Gemma Collins with Sam Smith. She said: ‘About two months into doing pelvic floor exercises on a regular basis, I’ve reduced the number of bladder leaks from which I suffer’
(By strengthening the pelvic floor muscles correctly, you can achieve an 80 per cent-plus improvement in stress incontinence, says Myra Robson.)
Gemma adds: ‘About two months into doing pelvic floor exercises on a regular basis, I’ve reduced the number of bladder leaks from which I suffer. In fact, I haven’t had a leak since March.’
Gemma also says she relies on pads (she is now a paid ambassador for the brand Always Discreet).
‘You can get them either as an integral part of special knickers – they’re available up to size 22 — or to slip into your own underwear,’ she says.
‘The hay fever season is here which means I will be sneezing a lot. I refuse to have a cortisone injection because steroids make me swell up.
‘But I won’t have to worry about leaks when I sneeze as a pad combined with regular exercises means I can sneeze to my heart’s content.
‘It’s all to do with confidence. And no, it’s had no impact whatsoever on my sex life.
‘I live my life to the full as if each day is going to be my last and I’m not going to let an embarrassing leak stop me doing what I want to do — whether it’s going for a bike ride or on an active holiday or shaking my booty on the dance floor.’
And in a catchphrase true to her reality star status, she adds: ‘I want to be able to live my best life.
‘There’s no need for women to feel imprisoned by a leaky bladder,’ she says. ‘Too often we get a raw deal. In the end, it comes down to speaking out with confidence to get what we want.’
For tips on pelvic floor exercises go to alwaysdiscreet.co.uk; Bladder Health UK Helpline: 0121 702 0820.
How to protect your pelvic floor
Pelvic floor exercises involve a squeeze and lift of your pelvic floor — it should feel as if you’re about to pass wind in a social situation and you’re tightening the muscles around the back passage to avoid embarrassment, says pelvic health physiotherapist Myra Robson.
‘Or imagine stopping yourself half way through having a wee as if you were doing a urine test.’
There are two types of pelvic floor exercise, she explains.
‘First, a slow one, holding for about ten seconds, relaxing between each one and repeating ten times.
‘The fast one involves squeezing and letting go at a rate of one per second, again for ten times. All adult women should exercise 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 experience any pain or discomfort, she recommends seeing a pelvic health physio through a referral from your GP.
Or download the Squeezy app, devised by physiotherapists and available for £2.99 on iPhone and Android.
And try to protect your pelvic floor. Continence nurse Gill Davey is at pains to stress the importance of good habits when urinating to reduce any strain on it.
‘Be sure to empty your bladder fully,’ she says. ‘Drink lots of water throughout the day to keep everything functioning properly.
‘Also, don’t strain if you’re wanting to empty your bowels because that could damage those areas and loosen the pelvic floor.’