Dry Needling + Urinary Incontinence

Urinary incontinence (UI) is defined as ‘any complaint of involuntary leakage or urine’ that has several different subtypes based on when this leakage occurs (1). UI is a common and relevant condition that has a profound influence on well-being and quality of life of many patients worldwide. Millions of men and women throughout the world are affected. According to our body of evidence, UI can affect anywhere between 5-70% of the female population2-4 and 11-32% of the male population, contributing to decreased participation in preferred daily, work and recreational activities alongside an immense economic burden for some of those affected. (1-7) These symptoms have not only been shown to have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, but also on their mental health status. (7)

While UI is both common and very bothersome, it is also very treatable. I would love nothing more than to see our society and healthcare continuum recognize that UI is something that is ABNORMAL versus the typical categorization that it is a normal part of the aging, postpartum or postoperative experience.

Common, not normal. Common, but treatable.

UI can be treated with lifestyle and behavioral interventions, bladder training, electrical stimulation, pelvic floor muscle training (PFMT) with or without biofeedback, physical therapy, neuromodulation, periurethral injections and, in some cases, surgical intervention. (5,8)

Understanding the continence mechanism:

In a well-functioning pelvic floor, the connective tissue of the ligaments and fascia act together with the pelvic floor musculature to counteract the impact of any increase in intra-abdominal pressure and ground reaction forces, helping to maintain our continence. (8-10) This is an automatic function, requiring no need to think about voluntary contraction of the pelvic floor musculature. (8) When this mechanism is not working adequately, which can undoubtedly be multifactorial, urinary incontinence may occur.

The external urethral sphincter mechanism is a complex system of striated muscle which includes fiber blends from the urogenital triangle musculature and the anterior muscle bundle of the levator ani. (11) The good news here is that we, as rehabilitative clinicians, have many different tissue targets for treatment of UI.

Dry Needling and UI:

Dry needling (DN) encompasses the insertion of solid filament, non-injectate needles into, alongside or around muscles, nerves or connective tissues with or without mechanical and/or electrical stimulation for the management of pain and dysfunction in neuromusculoskeletal conditions. DN is both effective and efficient in modulating the central and peripheral nervous systems as well as the somatic tissues, including the pelvic floor.

There is a growing body of evidence that has provided us with an understanding on how to best utilize this technique in our clinical practice as it relates to UI. (12-17) With the external urethral sphincter and associated tissues being a main player in our urinary continence mechanism, it provides a road map on how we can utilize DN to treat UI. This boils down to two things: tissue specificity and the utilization of electrical stimulation. DN provides us with an avenue to directly influence a specific tissue as we are able to use an indwelling needle electrode placed strategically into a muscular or perineural tissue target. Using that tactically placed indwelling electrode we can then precisely deliver electrical stimulation, essentially speaking the language of the neuromotor system, making this technique one of the most effective tools we have as rehabilitative clinicians to treat UI.

Ultimately, we are able to stimulate the pudendal nerve alongside the targeted tissues. This can help to improve electric activation, proprioception and coordination in pelvic floor contraction during situations that contribute to UI. (18,19,22) Additionally, the pudendal nerve is an efferent nerve for the external urethral sphincter, so this treatment is capable of increasing the pressure of urethral closure, improving UI. Another important factor is that electrical stimulation has been shown to increase blood flow to the urethra and pelvic floor musculature, lending towards improvements in neuromuscular connections, muscle fiber function and genital atrophy, all leading to improvements in the mechanism of urethral closure. (19-22)

The power of the tissue reset that DN provides has changed clinical outcomes for the better. It has, and will continue to, positively impact and change the lives of many patients through facilitating a more balanced homeostatic baseline within the tissues, healthier motor recruitment patterns and optimal neuromuscular utility to re-establish function. Want to add this tool to your clinical practice? Check out our course offerings with our course affiliates Herman and Wallace and the APTA!


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