Help for Stress Incontinence

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About half of women ages 40 to 60 experience bladder leaks, or urinary incontinence, according to the American College of Physicians. And a condition called stress incontinence—leaking urine when you cough, sneeze, exercise, or laugh—is one of the most common types.

Treatments, which often include drugs and surgery, can be problematic and costly, but a study out today in JAMA offers encouraging evidence that acupuncture may be an easier alternative.

Chinese researchers looked at 482 women with stress incontinence. Half received a type of acupuncture called electroacupuncture (EA), where needles that have been inserted into the skin are stimulated with low-level electric current, while the others received a placebo technique.

After six weeks of treatment, the average amount of urine expelled during tests designed to stress the bladder dropped by 9.9 grams (about a third of an ounce) in the acupuncture group compared with 2.6 grams in the women in the placebo group. That’s a bigger improvement than what’s been seen in studies using an exercise program to strengthen pelvic floor muscles.

In addition, 38 percent of the acupuncture group reported that the number of times they experienced bladder leakage was cut at least in half. Just 23 percent of the placebo group had similar results. The acupuncture group continued to experience less leakage and reported greater improvements on a quality-of-life questionnaire 24 weeks after the treatment ended.  

How Electroacupuncture Might Help

In this study, the researchers inserted needles into the sacrum, at the lower end of the spinal cord, and left them in for 30 minutes. Although they aren’t sure exactly how acupuncture works to affect stress incontinence, they believe it may target part of the pudendal nerve, which controls the muscle that helps close the urethra, and help improve contraction of the pelvic floor muscles.

Acupuncturists use EA for a…

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