Andrew Siegel, MD 3/4/17
This is the completion of a blog entry uploaded last week entitled “Leaking Havoc: Female Stress Incontinence.”
How is Stress Urinary Incontinence (SUI) diagnosed and evaluated?
Listening carefully to the patient is usually sufficient to make the diagnosis of SUI, the typical complaint being: “Doc, I leak urine when I sneeze, cough and exercise.”
After hearing the details of the patient’s problem, the next step is a pelvic examination. The issue with an exam with legs-up-in-stirrups is that this is NOT the position in which SUI typically occurs, since SUI is usually provoked by standing, exertion and physical activities. For this reason, the exam must be performed using straining or coughing forcefully enough to demonstrate the SUI.
The pelvic examination is done after the patient empties her bladder. The exam involves observation, passage of a small catheter (a narrow hollow tube) into the bladder, a speculum exam and a digital exam.
Inspection determines tissue health and the presence of urethral movement with straining. After menopause, typical changes include thinning of the vaginal skin, redness, irritation, etc. The ridges and folds within the vagina that are present in younger women (rugae) tend to disappear.
A small catheter is passed into the bladder to determine how much urine remains, to obtain a urine culture in the event that urinalysis suggests infection and to determine urethral angulation. With the catheter in place, the angle that the urethra makes with the horizontal is measured. The catheter is typically parallel with the horizontal at rest. The patient is asked to strain and the angulation is again measured, recording the change in urethral angulation that occurs between resting and straining. Urethral angulation with straining (hyper-mobility) is a sign of loss of urethral support, which often is seen with SUI. The vagina is carefully inspected for other manifestations of pelvic organ prolapse (dropped bladder, rectum, uterus) that can accompany the SUI.
Image above: female urethra (woman in stirrups)–note that urethra points straight ahead, like the barrel of a rifle
Image above: female urethra (woman in stirrups)– because of urethral hyper-mobility the urethra leaks at the moment she is asked to strain or cough
Finally, a digital examination is performed to assess vaginal tone and pelvic muscle strength (rated on a scale from 0-5). A bimanual exam (combined internal and external exam in which the pelvic organs are felt between internal and external examining fingers) checks for the presence of pelvic masses.
Depending on circumstances, tests to further evaluate SUI may be used, including an endoscopic inspection of the lining of the bladder and urethra (cystoscopy), sophisticated functional tests of bladder storage and emptying (urodynamics) and, on occasion, imaging tests (bladder fluoroscopy).
How is SUI managed?
There are a variety of treatment options for SUI, ranging from non-invasive strategies to surgery. There are no effective medications for SUI. If there is not an adequate response to first-line, non-invasive, conservative measures, surgery becomes an appropriate consideration. However, it is always sensible to initially use a conservative approach that is cost-effective, natural, uses few resources and is free from side effects.
Kegel Exercises for SUI
Kegels have emerged from obscure to mainstream…In fact the 2017 Oscar “swag bag” included a pelvic floor device called “The Elvie,” reviewed in my book THE KEGEL FIX.
Combating SUI demands contracting one’s pelvic floor muscles (PFMs) strongly, rapidly and ultimately, reflexively. The goal of Kegels, a.k.a. pelvic floor muscle training (PFMT) is to increase PFM strength, power, endurance and coordination to improve urethral support and closure.
Who Knew? PFMT has the potential to improve or cure SUI in those who suffer with the problem and prevent it in those who do not have it.
The cough reflex is an automatic contraction of the PFMs above and beyond their resting tone when one coughs. This squeezes the urethra shut to help prevent leakage. This is nature’s way of protection against incontinence with a sudden increase in abdominal pressure, a defense against cough-related SUI. An extension of this principle is to exercise the PFMs to amplify strength and power to allow earlier activation and more robust contraction.
PFMT increases PFM bulk and thickness, reducing the number of SUI episodes. Additionally, PFMT improves urethral support at rest and with straining, diminishing the urethral hyper-mobility that is characteristic of SUI. It also permits earlier activation of the PFMs when coughing, more rapid repeated PFM contractions and more durable PFM contractions between coughs.
Who Knew? PFMT can cure or considerably improve 60-70% of women who suffer with SUI. The benefits persist for many years, as long as the exercises are adhered to on an ongoing basis. PFMT is equally effective for pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women with SUI.
Who Knew? PFMT is most effective in women with mild or mild-moderate SUI. Chances are that if the SUI is moderate-severe, PFMT will be less effective. However, if not cured, the SUI can be improved, and that might be sufficient.
Once the PFMs are conditioned via PFMT, it is vital to apply the improved conditioning on a practical basis. The cough reflex can be replicated—voluntarily—when one is in situations other than actual coughing that induce SUI. In order to do so, one needs to be attentive to the triggers that provoke the SUI. By actively contracting the PFMs immediately prior to the trigger exposure, the SUI can be improved or prevented. For example, if changing position from sitting to standing results in SUI, consciously performing a brisk PFM contraction—an intense contraction for 2-5 seconds prior to and during transitioning from sitting to standing—should “clamp the urethra” and help control the problem. Such bracing of the PFMs can be a highly effective means of managing SUI and when practiced diligently can become automatic (a reflex behavior).
More Non-Invasive Strategies to Improve SUI
Manage the condition that provokes the SUI: Since discrete triggers often provoke SUI (e.g., when asthma causes wheezing, seasonal allergies cause sneezing, or when tobacco use, bronchitis, sinusitis, or post-nasal drip cause coughing), by managing the underlying condition, the SUI can be avoided.
Moderate fluid intake: With a sudden increase in abdominal pressure, there will tend to be more SUI when there are larger volumes in the bladder (although SUI can occur even immediately after urinating). Since there is a direct relationship between fluid intake and urine production, any moderation in fluid intake will decrease the volume of urine in the bladder and potentially improve the SUI. The key is to find the right balance to diminish the SUI, yet avoid dehydration. Since caffeinated beverages and alcohol increase urine volume, it is best to limit exposure (caffeine is present in coffee, tea, cola and even chocolate has a caffeine-like ingredient).
Urinate regularly: Based on the premise that there tends to be more SUI when there are greater volumes in the bladder, by emptying the bladder more frequently, SUI can be better controlled. Urinating on a two-hour basis is usually effective, although the specific timetable needs to be individually tailored. Voluntary urinary frequency is more desirable than involuntary SUI. An extension of this principle is to empty one’s bladder immediately before any activity that is likely to induce the SUI.
Maintain a healthy weight: Extra pounds can worsen SUI by increasing abdominal pressure and placing a greater load on the pelvic floor and bladder. Even a modest weight loss may improve SUI.
Who Knew? Bearing the burden of unnecessary pounds adversely affects many body parts. As much as obesity puts a great strain on the knees that support the body’s weight, so it does on the PFM.
Exercise: Being physically active can go a long way towards maintaining general fitness and helping improve SUI. In general, exercises that emphasize the core muscles—particularly Pilates and yoga—are most helpful for SUI. Unfortunately, and ironically, it is exercise that often provokes SUI.
Tobacco cessation: Tobacco causes bronchial irritation and coughing that provoke SUI. Additionally, chemical constituents of tobacco constrict blood vessels, impair blood flow, decrease tissue oxygenation and promote inflammation, negatively affecting function of the bladder, urethra and PFMs. By eliminating tobacco, SUI can be significantly improved.
Maintain bowel regularity: Achieving bowel regularity may improve SUI and prevent it from progressing. A rectum full of stool can adversely affect urinary control by putting internal pressure on the bladder and urethra. Additionally, chronic straining with bowel movements—similar in many ways to being in “labor” every day—can have a cumulative effect in weakening PFMs and can be a key factor in the development of SUI. To promote healthy bowel function, exercise daily and increase fiber intake by eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
The tampon trick: If SUI occurs under very predictable circumstances—e.g., during tennis, golf or jogging—a strategically placed tampon can be a friend. The tampon is not used for absorption purposes, but to support the urethra. By positioning the tampon in the vagina directly under the urethra, it acts as a space-occupying backboard. The tampon does not need to be positioned as deeply as it would be for menstruation, but just within the vagina. This may allow one to pursue activities without the need for a pad. Poise has come out with “Impressa,” a tampon available in three sizes designed specifically for SUI. It is placed via an applicator and can be worn for up to eight hours. In Australia and the UK, “Contiform,” a self-inserted, foldable intra-vaginal device that is shaped like a hollow tampon, is often used to help manage SUI.
Surgical Management of SUI: Mid-urethral sling
Image above is of a mid-urethral sling in place under the urethra to provide the support necessary to cure/substantially improve the stress urinary incontinence
If conservative measures fail to sufficiently improve SUI, there are solutions. A relatively simple outpatient procedure—the mid-urethral sling—is the implantation of a synthetic tape between the urethra and vagina to recreate the “backboard” of urethral support that is defective. This creates a “hammock” to provide support and to allow compression and pinching of the urethra with any activity that increases abdominal pressure.
The sling procedure is performed via a small vaginal incision. The permanent material used for the sling is polypropylene tape, the same material as used by general surgeons to repair groin hernias. Mid-urethral refers to the placement of the sling beneath the mid-urethra, the channel that leads from the bladder to the urinary opening. Sling refers to the configuration created when the tape is firmly anchored to the soft tissues of the pelvis after being placed underneath the urethra. The sling procedure has a 85-90% cure rate for SUI.
Wishing you the best of health,
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Dr. Andrew Siegel is a practicing physician and urological surgeon board-certified in urology as well as in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. Dr. Siegel serves as Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School and is a Castle Connolly Top Doctor New York Metro Area, Inside Jersey Top Doctor and Inside Jersey Top Doctor for Women’s Health. His mission is to “bridge the gap” between the public and the medical community that is in such dire need of bridging.
Author of MALE PELVIC FITNESS: Optimizing Sexual & Urinary Health http://www.MalePelvicFitness.com
Author of THE KEGEL FIX: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health. Much of the content of this entry was excerpted from this book. The book was written for educated and discerning women who care about health, well being, nutrition and exercise and enjoy feeling confident, sexy and strong.
The Kegel Fix is available in e-book format on the Amazon Kindle, iPad (Apple iBooks), Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo and in paperback, all accessible via the following website: www.TheKegelFix.com. The e-book offers discretion, advantageous for books about personal issues, is less expensive, is delivered immediately, saves the trees, has adjustable fonts, as well as numerous hyperlinks—links to other sites activated by clicking—that access many helpful resources.