Urination Nation: How Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy Eliminates Urinary Incontinence

In Bladder Dysfunction by Kim Buonomo1 Comment

By Kim Buonomo, DPT, PHRC Lexington

We often see patients who report urinary incontinence as a symptom of their pelvic floor dysfunction. Incontinence is defined as the lack of voluntary control over one’s urination or defecation. Sometimes this is not the reason they seek treatment, but rather a secondary finding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of “I leak urine, but that’s just the way it is, because I’ve had kids.” Urinary incontinence is not considered a normal part of the aging process, and while very common, can often be resolved or improved with appropriate medical interventions including pelvic floor physical therapy (PFPT). I wanted to perform a review with information I think everyone should know about urinary incontinence and the pelvic floor. The best way to know if pelvic floor PT could help in your specific circumstances is to see a pelvic floor physical therapist. Many of us here at PHRC (including me!) are currently offering digital healthcare appointments

The prevalence of incontinence has been widely studied, but as some patients may not report it to their doctors, the true occurrence may be even higher than we think. In general, incontinence affects 20-30% of young adults, 30-40% of middle aged individuals, and 30-50% of elderly individuals and affects both men and women. Large studies have indicated that there is a 3% to 11% overall prevalence rate of incontinence in men, but some studies report that may actually be as high as 39%. 

Types of urinary incontinence include

  • Stress
  • Urge 
  • Mixed
  • Overflow 
  • Functional

Let’s delve into each of these. 

Stress Urinary Incontinence (SUI)

What happens: Urine leaks when you exert pressure on your bladder by coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising or lifting something heavy.

AKA: stress incontinence, stress urinary incontinence, SUI, “Don’t make me laugh, I’ll pee my pants,” “I can’t jump on a trampoline or I‘ll leak.”

Risk factors include, but are not limited to: pregnancy, menopause, obesity, low physical activity, professional sport, gynaecological operations, prostatectomy, athletes (especially young female athletes), and other pelvic injuries.

Prevalence: Stress urinary incontinence affects an average of 48% of women and less than 10% of men as a primary symptom.

Effects of PT: Pelvic floor muscle training (PFMT) and pelvic floor physical therapy are recommended as a first line treatment for stress urinary incontinence. A Cochrane review of 21 trials involving 1281 women showed that women with SUI who received pelvic floor muscle training were eight times more likely than controls to report that they were cured, and 17 times more likely to report cure or improvement. Women treated with PFMT leaked urine less often, lost smaller amounts, and emptied their bladders less often during the day. Another study which interviewed 263 women who had undergone PFPT for stress incontinence showed that five years after PT, up to 41.7% of women were still adherent to training and reported that their quality of life was “very high.”

For more information, check out the following from the PHRC Blog:

Urge Urinary Incontinence (UUI)

What happens: You have a sudden, intense urge to urinate followed by an involuntary loss of urine. You may need to urinate often, including throughout the night. 

AKA:  urge incontinence, urge urinary incontinence, UUI, “gotta go right now,” “I put my key in the door and suddenly I’m running to the bathroom” “I can’t hear running water without needing to pee.”

Risk factors include, but are not limited to: infection, neurologic disorder, diabetes, bladder overactivity or hypersensitivity, lifestyle habits such as holding your bladder for extended periods.

Prevalence: An average of 17-22% of female patients with incontinence report urge incontinence is the primary symptom. UUI is reported in 40% to 80% of male patients with incontinence. 

Effects of PT:  PT can improve pelvic floor function and bladder function control. We often talk about improving the coordination between the pelvic floor and the bladder. Some thoughts about how PT improves urge incontinence include improving patient’s understanding of their lower urinary tract, changing pelvic floor muscle activity during exercises to inhibit detrusor overactivity, and increasing pelvic floor muscle strength. 

Clinical experience has shown that different physical therapy treatment modalities generally will provide progress in most individuals with bladder overactivity. The bladder training that we do in PT emphasizes the neurological (cognitive) control over your bladder and often uses a voiding schedule to inhibit the sensation of urgency and postpone voiding. The goal is to attain a longer interval between consecutive voids with larger voided volumes.

For more information, check out the following from the PHRC Blog:

Mixed Urinary Incontinence 

You experience more than one type of urinary incontinence.

AKA:  “My bladder has a mind of its own.”

Risk factors include, but are not limited to: any of the above

Prevalence: Some sources say up to half of women who report urinary incontinence have mixed incontinence and 10-30% of men with incontinence have mixed incontinence.

Effects of PT: Mixed incontinence includes symptoms of both stress incontinence and urge incontinence. Since PT can help with either stress or urge incontinence, it should help with mixed incontinence as well. However, mixed incontinence is often considered more severe because it is more challenging to manage than either urinary condition alone. First-line treatment can include behavioral and pelvic floor muscle training, followed by overactive bladder medication. Sometimes combination therapy (conservative treatment like PT, as well as surgery such as a midurethral sling) can be used, but the effectiveness of this approach is unclear, and surgery is thought to have some risk of making the urgency component worse.

Overflow Urinary Incontinence

What happens: You experience frequent or constant dribbling of urine due to a bladder that doesn’t empty completely. In this situation, the intra-vesical pressure eventually equals the urethral resistance. This includes the involuntary release of urine due to a weak bladder muscle or due to blockage, where the bladder becomes overly full, even though the person feels no urge to urinate. 


Risk factors include, but are not limited to: neurological conditions such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis, impaired ability to sense bladder fullness or reduced bladder muscle contractility, neurogenic bladder, a blockage in the urinary tract, such as a bladder stone or a urinary tract tumor that constricts the urethra. When blockage occurs in men, it is usually caused by an enlarged prostate gland (benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH), cancer of the prostate, or a narrowing of the urethra.

Prevalence: unclear

Effects of PT: Since these patients have a medical cause of these symptoms apart from pelvic floor muscle dysfunction, their treatment focuses on addressing the underlying cause, so PT is often not a first-line treatment. Treatment can include self-catheterization (a tube is inserted into the bladder through the urethra, allowing urine to drain) or surgery to address the obstruction or abnormal growth. Medications are rarely used to treat overflow incontinence in women, but medications that make the prostate smaller may decrease pressure on the urethra in men. Physical therapy may be helpful for training the patient to self-catheterize, to provide education, and may help if the patient has symptoms of stress or urge incontinence after the underlying cause of the overflow incontinence has been addressed. 

Functional Urinary Incontinence

What happens: A physical or mental impairment keeps you from making it to the toilet in time. For example, if you have severe arthritis in your hands, you may not be able to unbutton and remove your pants quickly enough. If you recently had surgery such as a hip replacement, you may not be able to walk quickly enough to get to the bathroom in time.

AKA: functional incontinence

Risk factors include, but are not limited to: poor vision, psychological issues, environmental barriers to using the restroom, cognitive issues (including forms of dementia, delirium, and intellectual disabilities), neurological or muscular limitations, such as arthritis.

Prevalence: unknown

Effects of PT: Functional incontinence doesn’t necessarily involve the pelvic floor muscles, but that doesn’t mean that PT can’t help. In cases where incontinence is caused by a physical impairment, PT can often address that to improve function and ability to get to the bathroom. For example, working on fine motor tasks for the patient with arthritis in the hands, or improving functional mobility for the patient who had a recent hip or knee surgery. PTs can also provide education and help with home planning. Modifying the home environment can make a big change in symptoms, such as putting a commode by your bed so you don’t have to walk as far to the bathroom in the middle of the night. 

In summary, urinary incontinence is not as straightforward as one might think. There are many different causes with symptoms of leakage and different treatment ideas. Urinary incontinence affects people of all ages and there are many treatment options. Working with a PT can help you find the right solution for you, so you can stay happy and dry!


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