Master Class: Office Evaluation for Incontinence

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Ten years ago, urodynamics were widely viewed as the gold standard for evaluating urinary incontinence. We often turned to such testing to confirm or reject the findings of our basic evaluation before determining the best type of treatment – especially before proceeding with primary anti-incontinence surgery.

What has emerged in recent years is a body of evidence that tells us otherwise. We now know that urodynamics do not give us all the answers, and that we can be much more judicious with its use.

A good history followed by a thorough physical examination and some office tests often enables us to make sound treatment recommendations without costly and potentially uncomfortable urodynamic testing. The key lies in discerning complicated and uncomplicated cases. For patients deemed to have uncomplicated stress urinary incontinence (SUI) – especially those who have failed conservative management – we can comfortably recommend surgical repair without urodynamic testing.

Identifying uncomplicated SUI

The history is the most important part of the evaluation for incontinence. Every patient who answers “yes” to a basic opening question about whether she has any concerns about bladder control should be asked a series of questions that will enable the physician to fully understand her symptoms, their severity, and their impact on her life and daily activities.

It is critical to determine whether you are dealing with pure SUI, pure urge incontinence (UI), or SUI with a component of UI. Mixed incontinence is quite prevalent. An analysis of recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data showed that of those women reporting incontinence symptoms, almost 50% reported pure SUI, and 34% reported mixed incontinence (J. Urol. 2008;179: 656-61). Other studies similarly have shown prevalence rates of mixed incontinence above 30%.

The International Urogynecological Association (IUGA) recommends the use of validated questionnaires to assess incontinence and the relative contribution of UI and SUI symptoms. Some physicians do find the organized and structured format of questionnaires helpful in their practices. Others have incorporated questions from various tools into history-taking templates on their electronic medical records. Still others have made them part of a mental checklist for history taking.

The short-form version of the Urogenital Distress Inventory (UDI-6), for instance, asks the patient whether she experiences – and how much she is bothered by – the following: frequent urination; leakage related to a feeling of urgency; leakage related to activity, coughing, or sneezing; small amount of leakage; difficulty emptying the bladder; and pain or discomfort in the lower abdominal or genital area.

The Incontinence Impact Questionnaire can be used to further assess the impact of symptoms. The short-form IIQ (the IIQ-7) asks, for instance, about the extent to which urine leakage has affected household chores, physical recreation, social activities, or emotional health.

Since the UDI and IIQ were developed about 20 years ago, at least several other urinary incontinence questionnaires have been developed and validated. Whether or not questionnaires are utilized as official tools, history taking should capture their essence and provide you with enough information to ascertain the type of incontinence, frequency of occurrence, severity, and effect on daily life.

The history also must assess the possibility of voiding dysfunction. Positive responses to questions about nocturia, hesitancy, and the need to immediately revoid, for instance, point toward complicated SUI and the need for further assessment before embarking on surgical treatment for SUI.

Patients who have uncomplicated SUI, on the other hand, will answer negatively to questions about symptoms of predominant urgency, functional impairment, continuous leakage, and/or incomplete emptying. They also will not have had recurrent urinary tract infections or medical conditions that can affect lower urinary tract function (such as neurologic disease and poorly controlled diabetes).

The physical exam

Along with the history, the physical exam is important for identifying complicated SUI and confirming which cases of SUI are truly uncomplicated. Evaluation should include a cough stress test to confirm leakage from the urethra under stress, an assessment of urethral mobility, and an assessment for pelvic organ prolapse.

The cough stress test is usually done with the patient in the supine or semirecumbent lithotomy position. If you strongly suspect stress incontinence but have a negative result, consider the following:

• Make sure the patient has a comfortably full bladder.

• Many women will contract their pelvic floor muscles when coughing to try to avoid leaking. You can apply pressure against the posterior vaginal wall either digitally or with half of the bivalve speculum to keep the patient from activating her muscles.

• The cough test can be performed in the standing position.


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