Incontinence in women is a significant problem, and although it is a primarily a physical issue, it can also exert a huge emotional burden, which in some cases can even be life-changing. As a consequence, many ladies are open to trying virtually any treatment in a bid to tackle the problem head-on. Although the thought of electrical stimulation can sound quite daunting, there is evidence to show that it has benefits and can be an excellent solution to the problem.
What Is the Theory Behind Electrical Stimulation?
The primary cause of stress incontinence in women is due to a weakened pelvic floor, generally as a consequence of giving birth. Research has consistently shown that by regularly exercising the pelvic floor muscles most stress incontinence can be drastically minimised if not cured (CFA 2017), however much like going to the gym and exercising, not everyone is as focused and dedicated to the process as perhaps they should be, or simply many not have the required control to perform the exercises.
The idea behind electrical stimulation treatment (Slovak 2017) is that it encourages the muscles that control urination to contract and exercise, which will over time cause them to strengthen. In effect, it is an artificial stimulant or replacement for pelvic floor exercises.
How Is the Treatment Performed?
The treatment involves a unit which may be inserted either vaginally or anally. The piece of equipment which is inserted consists of an electrode, that delivers the electrical stimulation. Depending on the severity of the problem, the timing and the length of the treatment may vary. Although there is no standard treatment option, a good example might be two fifteen minute sessions daily, over a period of about 12 weeks. The good news is that this treatment can be performed in the comfort of your own home, using the equipment provided by the hospital, so there is no need to visit the hospital with all of the hassle and stress that this can cause. In most cases, a continence nurse or trained physiotherapist will attend your property to perform the treatment.
What If I Suffer from an Overactive Bladder or Urge Incontinence?
Although stress incontinence is the predominant version of incontinence, for which electrical stimulation is used, for those suffering from an overactive bladder, or urge incontinence, there are other electrical stimulation alternatives. Where other forms of treatment have failed, then electrical nodes can be placed just under the skin, normally in the lower back or leg. The procedure which is referred to as Posterior Tibial Nerve Stimulation (Sherif and Abdelwahab 2013)works by connecting an electrical stimulator to a small electrode, which has been inserted into your leg. The stimulator then sends electrical pulses into your body, via the electrode, with the intent of stimulating the tibial nerve, which is where the name originates. This nerve has been shown to control the bladder and pelvic floor functions.
Is Electrical Stimulation Painful?
For people who do not wish to undergo surgical treatment, and who for whatever reason are unable to exercise their pelvic floor muscles then electrical stimulation might be an excellent solution. Unfortunately, as you might imagine, this form of treatment is not particularly pleasant or enjoyable, but it may well be a case of the ends justifying the means.
Many people have described the sensation as being similar to that of pins and needles. As your muscles become stronger and the patient regains an element of control, then the electrical stimulation can be reduced or even removed. It is not a long-term treatment so think of it as more of a kick start to get the muscles working again.
Are There Any Restrictions On Who Can Have Electrical Stimulation Treatment?
Although there are no specific safety concerns regarding this treatment, there are a number of reasons why electrical treatment might not be suitable. These include but are not limited to
- An Inflamed or infected vulva or vagina
- You have an implanted pacemaker
- Allergic reactions to the electrodes or the electrode gel
- You are taking blood-thinning treatment
- You have previously suffered from Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
- You have poor circulation
Are There Any Negatives to Electrical Stimulation?
While the benefits of this form of treatment have been discussed, it is also important to mention any negative aspects that you should consider.
There is not a great deal of research on any effects this treatment may have on the pelvic or abdominal organs. However, the treatment may cause a change in the sensations felt within the vagina.
Furthermore, if you are a virgin, have never used tampons, or have never had a baby, then there is a possibility that you might find the insertion of the probe more painful than others.
Overall though electrical stimulation can be an excellent solution to female stress incontinence (there is no evidence that this treatment is beneficial in males) does not necessitate surgery, and if successful can give incontinence sufferers their confidence and independence back. If you are interested in this type of treatment discuss the options with your local GP.
CFA 2017. Common myths · Pelvic floor muscles · Continence Foundation of Australia. Available at: https://www.continence.org.au/pages/common-myths-about-your-pelvic-floor.html.
Sherif and Abdelwahab 2013. Posterior tibial nerve stimulation as treatment for the overactive bladder. Arab Journal of Urology 11(2), pp. 131–135. doi: 10.1016/j.aju.2013.04.007.
Slovak 2017. Non-invasive transcutaneous electrical stimulation in the treatment of overactive bladder – ScienceDirect. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214388215000375.