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Stress Incontinence in Women


In women with stress incontinence, an increase in pressure in the abdomen momentarily puts physical stress on the pelvis, causing urine loss. Activities such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising and even standing up can cause leakage in women with this type of incontinence.

Treatments include behavioral therapies — such as biofeedback and pelvic muscle exercises — vaginal inserts, electrical stimulation and surgery.

Our approach to stress incontinence in women

Incontinence is not an inevitable part of getting older, and there are a variety of treatments available. A leader in this field, UCSF offers innovative, compassionate care to women with stress incontinence. Our team includes gynecologists, urologists, colorectal surgeons and physical therapists who specialize in pelvic floor rehabilitation. Treatment options include use of a vaginal insert called a pessary, as well as targeted exercises, biofeedback and electrical stimulation to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. We also offer the two main surgical treatments for incontinence, bladder neck suspension and sling procedures.

We believe that empowering women with knowledge is an important part of the healing process, and encourage each patient to participate in choosing the best treatment option for her.

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Signs & symptoms

Symptoms include urine loss when performing activities such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising or even standing up.


If you have incontinence, keeping a urinary diary — a record of your daily urination, urine accidents and fluid intake — can help us make the proper diagnosis and decide on the appropriate treatment.

At your first visit to UCSF, your provider will ask questions about your general health, your history of incontinence, past surgeries, illnesses and medications you are taking. The provider will also perform a physical examination, including a pelvic exam. In addition, a urine sample will be tested. If your problem is complex, additional tests may be done at a later visit.

Physical exam assessment

Depending on the particular details of your medical history, your doctor may proceed to any or all of the following physical evaluations.

  • Neurologic examination to evaluate strength, sensation and reflexes in your legs.
  • Pelvic exam to assess whether you have any pelvic relaxation or prolapse.
  • Pelvic floor assessment, in which your provider will evaluate the strength of your pelvic floor muscles, particularly your ability to contract and relax the appropriate muscle group.
  • Postvoid residual urine assessment to measure how much urine remains in your bladder within 15 minutes of voiding. This test offers an estimation of your bladder's ability to efficiently "empty the tank." The same urine sample may be analyzed for other factors, such as blood, sugar, crystals or signs of infection. Such an evaluation can be accomplished with an office urine dipstick or the hospital laboratory's microscopic urinalysis.
  • Urine culture if a urine dipstick or urinalysis suggests signs of acute infection. The culture is sent to the microbiology lab and, in approximately 24 to 48 hours, bacterial growth can be detected and the specific strain identified.
  • Cough stress test, in which your bladder is filled with water, and you are asked to cough or strain in the same manner that would cause you to leak urine. This test can be performed in the office or incorporated into more elaborate urodynamics testing.
  • A urinary diary provides details about your fluid intake and urine output, which can be crucial to making the right diagnosis. Because this is not typically the sort of information we take notice of in our daily lives, your provider will give you a urinary diary and a measuring receptacle. You may be asked to carefully record the time and amount of any fluids you drink and the urine you void over a complete 24-hour period. You may be asked to repeat this 24-hour diary for three to five days. This allows us to notice patterns that might be important to planning your treatment.

Additional diagnostic tests

In some cases, the doctor may decide to pursue further diagnostic testing. Below is a list of some scenarios that are more complex and merit further testing:

  • Uncertain diagnosis for bladder problems
  • Inability to develop successful treatment plan
  • Unimproved symptoms or failed treatment
  • Patient is considering surgery
  • Failed surgical procedure
  • Presence of other conditions, such as hematuria (blood in urine) without infection, recurrent urinary tract infections, elevated postvoid residual urine volume, neurologic condition

Urodynamic studies

The purpose of these studies is to evaluate the anatomy and function of the bladder and urethra, reproducing your symptoms.

  • Cystometrogram. During this test, catheters are placed in your bladder and vagina or rectum, and your bladder is filled with fluid via the catheter. The test is used to determine your perception of water filling the bladder, any urgency to urinate, uncontrollable bladder contractions, the volume at which your bladder cannot comfortably hold any more, and the pressures within your bladder during the fluid storage process.
  • Stress testing. You may be asked to perform a number of maneuvers such as coughing, changing positions, or bouncing on your heel with a catheter in place in an effort to reproduce any symptoms of incontinence.
  • Urethral pressure profile. A catheter in your urethra is manipulated to measure urethral function.
  • Uroflometry. During urination, a specially devised receptacle will measure the varying rate of urine flow, as well as duration of urination.
  • Pressure voiding study. This test identifies abnormal voiding patterns or urine obstruction.

Other tests

In cystoscopy, a slender camera is inserted via the urethra into the bladder, enabling the doctor to view the interior anatomy of your bladder and urethra in great detail. It is typically an outpatient procedure performed for the following symptoms or situations:

  • Blood or pus in urine with no bacteria present
  • Bladder infections that are unusually difficult to treat
  • New onset voiding irritation
  • New onset bladder pain
  • Suspected foreign body in the bladder
  • Urodynamics tests fail to duplicate incontinence symptoms

Radiologic tests identify upper or lower urinary tract structural abnormalities:

  • Intravenous pyelogram (IVP). This test involves administering intravenous (IV) dye to your bloodstream and taking X-rays of the entire urinary tract while the kidneys are processing the injected dye. This test cannot be performed if you have an allergy to IV contrast dye or abnormal kidney function.
  • CT scan. A CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis may be performed, in which an X-ray machine takes a rapid sequence of two-dimensional, thin cross-sections of the body in the area of interest. This exam can be performed with or without contrast dye; mostly, this depends on what your doctor is looking for. The X-rays pictures provide great anatomic detail of most of the internal organs.
  • Ultrasound. Unlike the previous two tests, an ultrasound does not involve X-rays. It utilizes a skin probe that directs sound waves to bounce off the body's internal organs, producing an anatomic picture. It can be a very useful screening tool for a number of the above indications.


Behavioral therapies, vaginal inserts, electrical stimulation and surgery are the three treatment options for women with stress incontinence. The objective is to rehabilitate the pelvic floor by building the strength and function of the muscles that support the bladder, urethra and other organs contained within the pelvic region.

Behavioral treatments

Behavioral treatments are simple, self-directed, have no side effects and are often used in conjunction with other treatment options. They have proven effective for many women and work well for certain types of incontinence. They include:

  • Pelvic muscle exercises. Pelvic muscle exercises, also known as Kegels, are an essential part of improving incontinence and preventing it from worsening. They can also help you suppress the urge to urinate. The exercises strengthen and tone the muscles that support the pelvic organs. These muscles contract and relax under your command to control the opening and closing of the bladder. Achieving results requires commitment and regular exercise. Correct technique is also very important.
  • Biofeedback. Biofeedback has been proven effective in numerous research studies for the treatment of urinary incontinence. It can help you learn to control and strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, which play an important role in bladder control. Because you cannot see the pelvic floor muscles, you may find it difficult to locate them or to determine if you're doing pelvic muscle exercises correctly. Biofeedback therapy uses computer graphs and audible tones to show you the muscles you are exercising. It also allows the therapist to measure your muscle strength and individualize your exercise program.
  • The knack. Normally, the pelvic floor muscles contract automatically when pressure hits the bladder, keeping the urethra sealed shut. But if your muscles do not contract quickly enough or with enough force, you may leak urine. The key to not leaking is to use your pelvic muscles just in time to squeeze the urethra shut. This well-timed muscle use is referred to as "the knack." Learning to use the pelvic muscles at the right time is a skill like learning any other new muscle activity. At first it might be hard, but with practice many can learn how to remain dry.

Vaginal inserts

Vaginal inserts and pessaries are frequently used to treat bladder and pelvic support problems. These devices are placed into the vagina to provide support for the uterus, bladder, urethra and rectum. A number of types are available, and the inserts are fit to meet your needs and anatomy.

Electrical stimulation

Pelvic floor electrical stimulation uses low-grade electrical current to stimulate weak or inactive pelvic muscles to contract. A tampon-like sensor that connects to a handheld adjustable device is inserted in the vagina. The patient then increases the current to the level of a comfortable tingle. Regular electrical stimulation sessions can supplement or augment your pelvic muscle exercise regime. Units are available for home use and may be covered by Medicare or insurers.


Surgery is performed to restore the normal position of the bladder neck and urethra. There are two main types of operations for incontinence: bladder neck suspension procedures and sling procedures. Within the medical community, the comparative effectiveness of these procedures is still being debated. If you are considering surgery, it is important that the decision be based on your individual circumstances.


There are currently no medications marketed specifically for the treatment of stress urinary incontinence. However, there are several experimental medications in development. Medications for this condition should be available in the near future.

Estrogen replacement therapy taken in pill or skin patch form has not been shown to be an effective treatment for female urinary incontinence. Vaginal estrogen (creams, vaginal rings or vaginal pellets) have helped reduce recurrent urinary tract infections in postmenopausal women, but their effectiveness for incontinence is unknown.

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.

Recommended reading

Biofeedback for Incontinence

Biofeedback takes information about something happening in the body and presents it in a way that you can see or hear and understand. Learn more here.

Bladder Training

Bladder training is an important form of behavior therapy that can be effective in treating urinary incontinence. Learn more here.

FAQ: Incontinence

Urinary incontinence is the involuntary loss of large or small amounts of urine, and it is thought to affect 13 million Americans. Learn more here.

Pelvic Muscle Exercises

Pelvic muscle exercises, also known as kegels, are an essential part of improving incontinence and preventing it from worsening. Learn more.


The pessary is a device (firm ring) that is placed into the vagina to support the uterus or bladder and rectum. Learn more here.

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