Treatment for urinary incontinence depends on the type of incontinence, the severity of your problem and the underlying cause. Your doctor will recommend the approaches best suited to your condition. A combination of treatments may be needed.
In most cases, your doctor will suggest the least invasive treatments first, so you'll try behavioral techniques and physical therapy first and move on to other options only if these techniques fail.
Behavioral techniques and lifestyle changes work well for certain types of urinary incontinence. They may be the only treatment you need.
Bladder training. Your doctor may recommend bladder training alone or in combination with other therapies to control urge and other types of incontinence. Bladder training involves learning to delay urination after you get the urge to go. You may start by trying to hold off for 10 minutes every time you feel an urge to urinate. The goal is to lengthen the time between trips to the toilet until you're urinating every two to four hours.
Bladder training may also involve double voiding urinating, then waiting a few minutes and trying again. This exercise can help you learn to empty your bladder more completely to avoid overflow incontinence. In addition, bladder training may involve learning to control urges to urinate. When you feel the urge to urinate, you're instructed to relax breathe slowly and deeply or to distract yourself with an activity.
- Scheduled toilet trips. This means timed urination going to the toilet according to the clock rather than waiting for the need to go. Following this technique, you go to the toilet on a routine, planned basis usually every two to four hours.
- Fluid and diet management. In some cases, you can simply modify your daily habits to regain control of your bladder. You may need to cut back on or avoid alcohol, caffeine or acidic foods. Reducing liquid consumption, losing weight or increasing physical activity are other lifestyle changes that can eliminate the problem.
Pelvic floor muscle exercises. These exercises strengthen your urinary sphincter and pelvic floor muscles the muscles that help control urination. Your doctor may recommend that you do these exercises frequently. They are especially effective for stress incontinence, but may also help urge incontinence.
To do pelvic floor muscle exercises (Kegel exercises), imagine that you're trying to stop your urine flow. Squeeze the muscles you would use to stop urinating and hold for a count of three and repeat.
With Kegel exercises, it can be difficult to know whether you're contracting the right muscles and in the right manner. In general, if you sense a pulling-up feeling when you squeeze, you're using the right muscles. Men may feel their penises pull in slightly toward their bodies. To double-check that you're contracting the right muscles, try the exercises in front of a mirror. Your abdominal, buttock or leg muscles shouldn't tighten if you're isolating the muscles of the pelvic floor.
If you're still not sure whether you're contracting the right muscles, ask your doctor for help. Your doctor may suggest you work with a physical therapist or try biofeedback techniques to help you identify and contract the right muscles. Your doctor may also suggest vaginal cones, which are weights that help women strengthen the pelvic floor.
- Electrical stimulation. In this procedure, electrodes are temporarily inserted into your rectum or vagina to stimulate and strengthen pelvic floor muscles. Gentle electrical stimulation can be effective for stress incontinence and urge incontinence, but it takes several months and multiple treatments to work.
Often, medications are used in conjunction with behavioral techniques. Drugs commonly used to treat incontinence include:
- Anticholinergics. These prescription medications calm an overactive bladder, so they may be helpful for urge incontinence. Several drugs fall under this category, including oxybutynin (Ditropan), tolterodine (Detrol), darifenacin (Enablex), fesoterodine (Toviaz), solifenacin (Vesicare) and trospium (Sanctura). Possible side effects of these medications include dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision and flushing.
- Topical estrogen. Applying low-dose, topical estrogen in the form of a vaginal cream, ring or patch may help tone and rejuvenate tissues in the urethra and vaginal areas. This may reduce some of the symptoms of incontinence.
- Imipramine. Imipramine (Tofranil) is a tricyclic antidepressant that may be used to treat mixed urge and stress incontinence.
- Duloxetine. The antidepressant medication duloxetine (Cymbalta) is sometimes used to treat stress incontinence.
Several medical devices are available to help treat incontinence. They're designed specifically for women and include:
- Urethral insert. This small tampon-like disposable device inserted into the urethra acts as a plug to prevent leakage. It's usually used to prevent incontinence during a specific activity, but it may be worn throughout the day. Urethral inserts aren't meant to be worn 24 hours a day. They are available by prescription and may work best for women who have predictable incontinence during certain activities, such as playing tennis. The device is inserted before the activity and removed before urination.
- Pessary (PES-uh-re). Your doctor may prescribe a pessary a stiff ring that you insert into your vagina and wear all day. The device helps hold up your bladder, which lies near the vagina, to prevent urine leakage. You need to regularly remove the device to clean it. You may benefit from a pessary if you have incontinence due to a dropped (prolapsed) bladder or uterus.
- Bulking material injections. Bulking agents are materials, such as carbon-coated zirconium beads (Durasphere), calcium hydroxylapatite (Coaptite) or polydimethylsiloxane (Macroplastique), that are injected into tissue surrounding the urethra. This helps keep the urethra closed and reduce urine leakage. The procedure usually done in a doctor's office requires minimal anesthesia and takes about five minutes. The downside is that repeat injections are usually needed.
- Botulinum toxin type A. Injections of onabotulinumtoxinA (Botox) into the bladder muscle may benefit people who have an overactive bladder. Researchers have found this to be a promising therapy, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved this drug for incontinence. These injections may cause urinary retention that's severe enough to require self-catheterization. In addition, repeat injections are needed every six to nine months.
- Nerve stimulators. Sacral nerve stimulators can help control your bladder function. The device,which resembles a pacemaker, is implanted under the skin in your buttock. A wire from the device is connected to a sacral nerve an important nerve in bladder control that runs from your lower spinal cord to your bladder. Through the wire, the device emits painless electrical pulses that stimulate the nerve and help control the bladder. Another device, the tibial nerve stimulator, is approved for treating overactive bladder symptoms. Instead of directly stimulating the sacral nerve, this device uses an electrode placed underneath the skin to deliver electrical pulses to the tibial nerve in the ankle. These pulses then travel along the tibial nerve to the sacral nerve, where they help control overactive bladder symptoms.
If other treatments aren't working, several surgical procedures have been developed to fix problems that cause urinary incontinence.
Some of the commonly used procedures include:
- Sling procedures. A sling procedure uses strips of your body's tissue, synthetic material or mesh to create a pelvic sling or hammock around your bladder neck and urethra. The sling helps keep the urethra closed, especially when you cough or sneeze. There are many types of slings, including tension-free, adjustable and conventional.
- Bladder neck suspension. This procedure is designed to provide support to your urethra and bladder neck an area of thickened muscle where the bladder connects to the urethra. It involves an abdominal incision, so it's done using general or spinal anesthesia.
- Artificial urinary sphincter. This small device is particularly helpful for men who have weakened urinary sphincters from treatment of prostate cancer or an enlarged prostate gland. Shaped like a doughnut, the device is implanted around the neck of your bladder. The fluid-filled ring keeps your urinary sphincter shut tight until you're ready to urinate. To urinate, you press a valve implanted under your skin that causes the ring to deflate and allows urine from your bladder to flow.
Absorbent pads and catheters
If medical treatments can't completely eliminate your incontinence or you need help until a treatment starts to take effect you can try products that help ease the discomfort and inconvenience of leaking urine.
- Pads and protective garments. Various absorbent pads are available to help you manage urine loss. Most products are no more bulky than normal underwear, and you can wear them easily under everyday clothing. Men who have problems with dribbles of urine can use a drip collector a small pocket of absorbent padding that's worn over the penis and held in place by closefitting underwear. Men and women can wear adult diapers, pads or panty liners, which can be purchased at drugstores, supermarkets and medical supply stores.
- Catheter. If you're incontinent because your bladder doesn't empty properly, your doctor may recommend that you learn to insert a soft tube (catheter) into your urethra several times a day to drain your bladder (self-intermittent catheterization). This should give you more control of your leakage, especially if you have overflow incontinence. You'll be instructed on how to clean these catheters for safe reuse.