Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention of Urinary Incontinence

More than 75 percent of women can experience significant improvement in their incontinence symptoms with appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnosis

Much of the office testing for urinary incontinence is simple, straightforward, and comfortable. A treatment plan is often started on the first visit except in uncommon cases where further evaluation is necessary.

It is critical that the correct diagnosis for the type of urinary incontinence be made prior to instituting a treatment plan. Most often, the diagnosis can be made in the office and does not require complex or invasive testing. The diagnosis starts with a complete history and physical exam which can often determine the cause of urinary incontinence. Details regarding frequency and amount of urination as well as urinary leakage are reviewed. A past surgical and medical history as well as current medications may provide additional information. A voiding diary is sometimes given to the patient to record how much she drinks and voids, and to understand specifics regarding leakage episodes.

The physical exam includes a detailed pelvic exam. Office-based testing can help to further determine and characterize urinary incontinence. This testing can include urodynamics (a filling test of the bladder using a catheter to assess normal and abnormal bladder sensation and function), cystoscopy (a lighted scope inserted into the urethra to visualize the bladder and assess for anatomic abnormalities), and radiologic tests (X-ray, ultrasound, or CT scan to assess for kidney stones and other anatomic abnormalities).

Treatment

Treatment is customized for each patient based on their diagnosis, severity of condition, age, and ability to comply with treatment recommendations. Typically, treatment for overactive bladder is medical while treatment for stress incontinence is surgical. However, treatments may vary depending on the severity of the condition and the age of the patient as well as exam/test findings.

See the individual "Overactive Bladder" and "Stress Urinary Incontinence" pages to read more about specific treatment options for each diagnosis.

Prevention

Given the increasing incidence of urinary incontinence in our aging population, greater attention is being paid to prevention. An easy preventive intervention would be learning proper technique of pelvic floor exercises or Kegels and performing them prior to the onset of urinary incontinence. Most patients currently perform Kegels incorrectly. All patients would benefit from confirmation of proper exercise technique by their physician or qualified pelvic floor physical therapist. Avoidance of chronic straining and maintaining a healthy weight also can reduce the risk of stress urinary incontinence.

In addition, patients with complaints of overactive bladder or urinary incontinence should be evaluated soon after the onset of the condition as patients with mild symptoms often have greater success with more conservative treatment options. Treatment of long-standing disease often involves more aggressive treatment with lower success rates.

The long-term effects of method of delivery, vaginal versus cesarean section, on urinary incontinence are currently controversial with conflicting data. It has been suggested that cesarean section protects the pelvic floor from long-term conditions including pelvic prolapse, urinary incontinence, and fecal incontinence but greater data needs to be analyzed prior to making clinical recommendations.

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