Clinical Review

Nonsurgical treatments for patients with urinary incontinence

Author and Disclosure Information

Many nonsurgical options, including behavioral and drug therapies, are available to successfully manage urge urinary incontinence, stress urinary incontinence, and mixed urinary incontinence



CASE Patient has urine leakage that worsens with exercise

At her annual preventative health visit, a 39-year-old woman reports that she has leakage of urine. She states that she drinks “a gallon of water daily” to help her lose the 20 lb she gained during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wants to resume Zumba fitness classes, but exercise makes her urine leakage worse. She started wearing protective pads because she finds herself often leaking urine on the way to the bathroom.

What nonsurgical treatment options are available for this patient?

Nearly half of all women experience urinary incontinence (UI), the involuntary loss of urine, and the condition increases with age.1 This common condition negatively impacts physical and psychological health and has been associated with social isolation, sexual dysfunction, and reduced independence.2,3 Symptoms of UI are underreported, and therefore universal screening is recommended for women of all ages.4 The diversity of available treatments (TABLE 1) provides patients and clinicians an opportunity to develop a plan that aligns with their symptom severity, goals, preferences, and resources.

Types of UI

The most common types of UI are stress urinary incontinence (SUI) and urgency urinary incontinence (UUI). Mixed urinary incontinence (MUI) occurs when symptoms of both SUI and UUI are present. Although the mechanisms that lead to urine leakage vary by the type of incontinence, many primary interventions improve both types of leakage, so a clinical diagnosis is sufficient to initiate treatment.

Stress urinary incontinence results from an impaired or weakened sphincter, which leads to involuntary, yet predictable, urine loss during increased abdominal pressure, such as coughing, laughing, sneezing, lifting, or physical activity.5 In UUI, involuntary loss of urine often accompanies the sudden urge to void. UUI is associated with overactive bladder (OAB), defined as urinary urgency, with or without urinary incontinence, usually accompanied by urinary frequency and/or nocturia (urination that interrupts sleep).6

In OAB, the detrusor muscle contracts randomly, leading to a sudden urge to void. When bladder pressure exceeds urethral sphincter closure pressure, urine leakage occurs. Women describe the urgency episodes as unpredictable, the urine leakage as prolonged with large volumes, and often occurring as they seek the toilet. Risk factors include age, obesity, parity, history of vaginal delivery, family history, ethnicity/race, medical comorbidities, menopausal status, and tobacco use.5

Making a diagnosis

A basic office evaluation is the most key step for diagnostic accuracy that leads to treatment success. This includes a detailed history, assessment of symptom severity, physical exam, pelvic exam, urinalysis, postvoid residual (to rule out urinary retention), and a cough stress test (to demonstrate SUI). The goal is to assess symptom severity, determine the type of UI, and identify contributing and potentially reversible factors, such as a urinary tract infection, medications, pelvic organ prolapse, incomplete bladder emptying, or impaired neurologic status. In the absence of the latter, advanced diagnostic tests, such as urodynamics, contribute little toward discerning the type of incontinence or changing first-line treatment plans.7

During the COVID-19 pandemic, abbreviated, virtual assessments for urinary symptoms were associated with high degrees of satisfaction (91% for fulfillment of personal needs, 94% overall satisfaction).8 This highlights the value of validated symptom questionnaires that help establish a working diagnosis and treatment plan in the absence of a physical exam. Questionnaire-based diagnoses have acceptable accuracy for classifying UUI and SUI among women with uncomplicated medical and surgical histories and for initiating low-risk therapies for defined intervals.

The 3 incontinence questions (3IQ) screen is an example of a useful, quick diagnostic tool designed for the primary care setting (FIGURE 1).9 It has been used in pharmaceutical treatment trials for UUI, with low frequency of misdiagnosis (1%–4%), resulting in no harm by the drug treatment prescribed or by the delay in appropriate care.10 Due to the limitations of an abbreviated remote evaluation, however, clinicians should assess patient response to primary interventions in a timely window. Patients who fail to experience satisfactory symptom reduction within 6 to 12 weeks should complete their evaluation in person or through a referral to a urogynecology program.

Continue to: Primary therapies for UI...


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