Clinical Review

Update on pelvic floor dysfunction: Focus on urinary incontinence

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Options for urinary incontinence are expanding, but how do the available treatments compare? These experts interpret the results of four recent randomized head-to-head trials.



Urinary incontinence (UI) affects almost half of all women in the United States.1,2 Estimates suggest that the prevalence of UI gradually rises during young adult life, comes to a broad plateau in middle age, and then steadily increases from that plateau after age 65. Therefore, over the next 40 years, as the elderly population expands in size, the number of women affected by UI will significantly grow.3

For patients with UI, a multitude of therapeutic options are available. Which option is the best for your patient? In this article, we aim to answer that question by interpreting the results of four randomized trials, each of which directly compare two available treatment options. The first study examines patients with stress urinary incontinence (SUI), comparing the patients’ subjective improvement in urinary leakage and bladder function at 12 months after randomization to treatment with physiotherapy or midurethral sling surgery.

The three other trials examine patients with overactive bladder (OAB) and urgency urinary incontinence (UUI). Each trial directly compares the use of anticholinergic medications to an alternate treatment modality. Currently, anticholinergic medications and behavioral therapy are the recommended first-line therapies for OAB. Unfortunately, anticholinergic medications have poor patient compliance and significant systemic side effects.4 Caution should be used when considering anticholinergic medications in patients with impaired gastric emptying or a history of urinary retention. They also should be used with caution in elderly patients who are extremely frail. Additionally, clearance from an ophthalmologist must be obtained prior to starting anticholinergic medication in patients with narrow-angle glaucoma.5 Due to poor adherence and potential side effects, there is a growing effort to discover alternative treatment modalities that are safe and effective. Therefore, we chose to examine trials comparing: mirabegron versus tolterodine, percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation versus tolterodine, and onabotulinumtoxinA versus anticholingeric medications.

UI defined
Before discussing treatment options, we want to clarify the main types of UI (FIGURE). UI is defined as the complaint of involuntary loss of urine. UI can be subdivided into SUI, OAB/UUI, or mixed urinary incontinence.6 While there are other less common genitourinary etiologies that can lead to UI, nongenitourinary etiologies are prevalent and can aggravate existing SUI or OAB (TABLE).

SUI is the complaint of involuntary loss of urine on effort or physical exertion (such as during sporting activities) or on sneezing or coughing. Often, SUI can be diagnosed by patient report alone and surgery can be considered in symptomatic patients who demonstrate cough leakage on physical examination and normal postvoid residual volumes.

UUI is the involuntary loss of urine associated with urgency; it often occurs in the setting of OAB, which is defined as the syndrome of urinary urgency, usually accompanied by frequency and nocturia, with or without UUI, in the absence of urinary tract infection or other obvious pathology (such as neurologic dysfunction, infection, or urologic neoplasm). OAB-dry is present when patients do not have leakage with urgency, but are bothered by urgency, frequency, and/or nocturia. OAB-wet occurs when a patient has urgencyincontinence.

The presence of both SUI and OAB/UUI is known as mixed urinary incontinence. Stress and urgency urinary symptoms often present together. In fact, 10% to 30% of women with stress symptoms are found to have bladder overactivity on subsequent evaluation.2,7 Therefore, it is important to take a good history and consider urodynamic evaluation to confirm the diagnosis of SUI prior to surgery in women with mixed stress and urge symptoms, a history of a previous surgery for incontinence, or when there is a poor correlation of physical examination findings to reported symptoms.

Is surgery a first-line option for patients with SUI?

Labrie J, Berghmans BL, Fischer K, et al. Surgery versus physiotherapy for stress urinary incontinence. NEJM. 2013;369(12):1124−1133.

Physiotherapy, including pelvic floor muscle training (“Kegel exercises”), is utilized as a first-line treatment option for women with SUI that carries minimal risk for the patient. Midurethral sling surgery is often recommended if an initial trial of conservative treatment fails.7 Up to 50% of women treated with pelvic floor physiotherapy will ultimately undergo surgery to treat their SUI.8

Related article: Does urodynamic testing before surgery for stress incontinence improve outcomes? G. Willy Davila, MD (Examining the Evidence, December 2012)

Details of the study
This was a randomized, multicenter trial of women aged 35 to 80 years with moderate to severe SUI. After excluding women with previous incontinence surgery and stage 2 or higher pelvic organ prolapse, 460 participants were randomly assigned to undergo either a midurethral sling surgery or physiotherapy (pelvic floor muscle training). The primary outcome was subjective improvement in urinary leakage and bladder function at 12 months, as measured by the Patient Global Impression of Improvement (PGI-I), a 7-point Likert scale ranging from “very much worse” to “very much better.”


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