Medical management of urinary incontinence in women

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Bladder training is a conservative behavioral treatment for urinary incontinence that primary care physicians can teach. It is primarily used for urgency urinary incontinence but can also be useful in stress urinary incontinence.

After completing a bladder diary and gaining awareness of their daily voiding patterns, patients can learn scheduled voiding to train the bladder, gradually extending the urges to longer intervals.

Training the bladder

Clinicians should instruct patients on how to train the bladder, using methods first described by Wyman and Fantl.9 (See Training the bladder.)

There is evidence that bladder training improves urinary incontinence compared with usual care.10,11

The ACP recommends bladder training for women who have urgency urinary incontinence, but grades this recommendation as weak with low-quality evidence.


Introduced in 1948 by Dr. Arnold Kegel, pelvic floor muscle training has become widely adopted.12

Muscles of the pelvic floor

Figure 1. Muscles of the pelvic floor. The iliococcygeus, puborectalis, and pubococcygeus muscles make up the levator ani.

The pelvic floor consists of a group of muscles, resembling a hammock, that support the pelvic viscera. These muscles include the coccygeus and the layers of the levator ani (Figure 1). A weak pelvic floor is one of many risk factors for developing stress urinary incontinence. Like other muscle groups, a weak pelvic floor can be rehabilitated through various techniques, often guided by a physical therapist.

Compared with those who received no treatment, women with stress urinary incontinence who performed pelvic floor muscle training were 8 times more likely to report being cured and 17 times more likely to report cure or improvement.13

To perform a Kegel exercise, a woman consciously contracts her pelvic floor muscles as if stopping the flow of urine.

The Knack maneuver can be used to prevent leakage during anticipated events that increase intra-abdominal pressure. For example, when a cough or sneeze is imminent, patients can preemptively contract their pelvic floor and hold the contraction through the cough or sneeze.

Although many protocols have been compared, no specific pelvic floor exercise strategy has proven superior. A systematic review assessed variations in pelvic floor interventions, exercises, and delivery and found that there was insufficient evidence to make any recommendations about the best approach. However, the benefit was greater with regular supervision during pelvic floor muscle training than with little or no supervision.14

Pelvic floor muscle training strengthens the pelvic floor, which better supports the bladder neck and anatomically compensates for defects in stress urinary incontinence. In urgency urinary incontinence, a strong pelvic floor created by muscle training prevents leaking induced by the involuntary contractions of the detrusor muscle.


The ACP recommends pelvic floor muscle training as first-line treatment for stress urinary incontinence and mixed urinary incontinence, and grades this recommendation as strong with high-quality evidence.


Although pelvic floor exercises are effective in urinary incontinence, 30% of patients perform them incorrectly.15

Biofeedback therapy uses visual, verbal, and acoustic signals to give the patient immediate feedback and a greater awareness of her muscular activity. A commonly used technique employs a vaginal probe to measure and display pressure changes as the patient contracts her levator ani muscles.

Women who received biofeedback in addition to traditional pelvic floor physical therapy had greater improvement in urinary incontinence than those who received pelvic physical therapy alone (risk ratio 0.75, 95% confidence interval 0.66–0.86).16

Pelvic stimulation can be used separately or in conjunction with biofeedback in both urgency and stress urinary incontinence. When pelvic stimulation is used alone, 9 women need to be treated to achieve continence in 1, and 6 women need to be treated to improve continence in 1.16

Traditionally delivered by a pelvic floor physical therapist, pelvic stimulation and biofeedback have also been validated for home use.17,18 Several pelvic stimulation devices have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating stress, urgency, and mixed urinary incontinence. These devices deliver stimulation to the pelvic floor at single or multiple frequencies. Although the mechanisms are not clearly understood, lower frequencies are used to treat urgency incontinence, while higher frequencies are used for stress incontinence. A theory is that higher-frequency stimulation strengthens the pelvic floor in stress urinary incontinence while lower frequency stimulation calms the detrusor muscle in urgency urinary incontinence.

The Apex and Apex M devices are both available over the counter, the former to treat stress urinary incontinence and the latter to treat mixed urinary incontinence, using pelvic stimulation alone. Other available devices, including the InTone and a smaller version, the InTone MV, are available by prescription and combine pelvic stimulation with biofeedback.18

Women who wish to avoid surgery, botulinum toxin injections, and daily oral medications, particularly those who are highly motivated, are ideal candidates for these over-the-counter automatic neuromuscular pelvic exercising devices.


A ring pessary in place.

Figure 2. A ring pessary in place.

Pessaries are commonly used to treat pelvic organ prolapse but can also be designed to help correct the anatomic defect responsible for stress urinary incontinence. Continence pessaries support the bladder neck so that the urethrovesicular junction is stabilized rather than hypermobile during the increased intra-abdominal pressure that occurs with coughing, sneezing, or physical exertion (Figure 2). In theory, this should decrease leakage.

A systematic review concluded that the value of pessaries in the management of incontinence remains uncertain. However, there are inherent challenges in conducting trials of such devices.19 A pessary needs to be fitted by an appropriately trained healthcare provider. The Ambulatory Treatments for Leakage Associated With Stress Incontinence (ATLAS) trial20 reported that behavioral therapy was more effective than a pessary at 3 months, but the treatments were equivalent at 12 months.

The FDA has approved a disposable, over-the-counter silicone intravaginal device for treating stress urinary incontinence. Patients initially purchase a sizing kit and subsequently insert the nonabsorbent temporary intravaginal bladder supportive device, which is worn for up to 8 hours.

Women may elect to use regular tampons to do the job of a pessary, as they are easy to use and low in cost. No large randomized trials have compared tampons and pessaries, and currently no one device is known to be superior to another.

Overall, these devices are temporizing measures that have few serious adverse effects.

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