Cases That Test Your Skills

The boy who longed for a ‘dry spell’

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Chronic enuresis has destroyed 12-year-old Jimmy’s emotional and social functioning. The challenge: restore his self-esteem and find out why can’t he stop wetting his bed.



History: ‘I can’t face myself’

Jimmy, age 12, is referred to us by his pediatrician, who is concerned about his “frequent nighttime accidents.” His parents report that he wets his bed 5 to 6 times weekly and has never stayed consistently dry for more than a few days.

The accidents occur only at night, his parents say. Numerous interventions have failed, including restricting fluids after dinner and awakening the boy overnight to make him go to the bathroom.

Jimmy, a sixth-grader, wonders if he will ever stop wetting his bed. He refuses to go to summer camp or stay overnight at a friend’s house, fearful that other kids will make fun of him after an accident. Asked how “wet nights” are affecting his life, he says, “I can’t face myself in the mirror.”

The authors’ observations

Primary nocturnal enuresis is diagnosed in children age ≥5 who have never gone 6 consecutive months without an overnight accident. Pediatricians generally discover enuresis incidentally during regular checkups and refer to a psychiatrist only if the child has an emotional problem secondary to enuresis or a comorbid psychiatric disorder.

Once identified, enuresis requires a thorough assessment—including its emotional consequences, which for Jimmy are significant. In its practice parameter for treating enuresis, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)1 suggests that you:

Take an extensive developmental and family history. Find out if the child was toilet trained and started walking, talking, or running at an appropriate age. Delays in reaching developmental milestones can predict enuresis.1

Also find out if either parent had enuresis during childhood. Enuresis is heritable,2 and children often outgrow the problem at the same age as did the parent(s).

Focus on the bedwetting and the child’s reaction to it. Treat enuresis aggressively if it is hurting the child’s performance at school, social or emotional development, or self-esteem, or if the youth appears emotionally withdrawn or distressed.

Interview the child and parents separately, as each often reacts differently to the problem. In some cases, for example, the child’s bedwetting upsets the parents but the child hardly seems to care. Also, children often feel more at ease talking to a doctor alone, and parents can vent frustration without upsetting their child.

While interviewing the child, listen for psychosocial stressors that can lead to enuresis, such as parents’ marital problems, problems at school, recent hospitalization, physical or sexual abuse, or the recent birth of a sibling.

We spend about one half-hour with the child and another half-hour with the parents to thoroughly gauge enuresis’ emotional impact. To engage the child and hold his attention during that half-hour, we offer toys or play a game.

Check for physical causes. According to the AACAP practice parameter for enuresis treatment, you should:

  • assess nare patency and voice quality to rule out enlarged adenoids
  • check the nasal pharynx for enlarged tonsils
  • palpate the abdomen to check for bladder distention or fecal impaction
  • examine genitalia for abnormalities
  • view the back for a sacral dimple or other sign of a vertebral or spinal cord anomaly.
Also order a thorough neurologic examination to rule out subtle dysfunction associated with enuresis.1

Perform a urinalysis and urine culture to rule out urinary tract infection (UTI).

Order urodynamic studies or renal ultrasound if enuresis persists after two unsuccessful treatment trials, the physical examination uncovers positive findings, or the child has had a UTI.

Psychotherapy has a limited role in treating primary enuresis unless you suspect a psychological cause.1 We offered Jimmy supportive counseling to help alleviate emotional problems caused by bedwetting. He and his parents declined but agreed to reconsider later.

Further history: Toilet trained At 2

Jimmy was toilet trained at age 2 and reached all other age-appropriate developmental milestones, his mother says. Results of urine culture, repeated urinalyses, and neurologic and physical examinations are normal. Neither Jimmy nor his family have a history of UTI, dysuria, urgency, or increased urination frequency.

When Jimmy was age 9, his pediatrician prescribed imipramine, 25 mg/d, to try to stop his bedwetting. He did not respond after 6 months, so his parents stopped giving the drug to him.

A few months later, Jimmy’s parents heard about a “bedwetting alarm” designed to condition children not to urinate while asleep, but the boy and his parents viewed this treatment as “humiliating” and refused to try it. They have not attempted another intervention for 2 years.

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The authors’ observations

Having found no medical or psychological basis for Jimmy’s enuresis (Box), we pondered our next clinical move.


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