What Matters

Kegel exercises



The prevalence of urinary incontinence is 17%-55% among older women and 12%-42% among younger and middle-aged women. Only 45% of women with at least weekly symptoms seek medical care to address their symptoms.

For most of us, offering conservative measures is the most reasonable approach when women present. Pelvic floor muscle training, sometimes referred to as Kegel exercises, is usually one of the first things we discuss. Many women have heard this spiel before and may report having tried but not benefited from the exercises. This real or perceived lack of benefit may be related to either poor adherence or lack of efficacy.

In theory, pelvic floor muscle training builds strength and improves muscle tone, enhances conscious awareness of muscle groups, and increases perineal support by lifting pelvic viscera. But do clinical trial data support the use of pelvic muscle training for reducing urinary incontinence?

Dr. O. Celiker Tosun of Dokuz Eylül University, Izmir, Turkey, and colleagues published the results of a randomized clinical trial evaluating the effectiveness of an individually prescribed 12-week home-based pelvic floor muscle exercise program (Clin. Rehabil. 2014 Aug. 20 [doi:10.1177/0269215514546768]). Women with stress or mixed urinary incontinence were selected from a urogynecology clinic and randomized to pelvic floor muscle training (65 patients) or a control condition (65 patients).

The pelvic floor muscle training group had significant improvement in their symptoms of urinary incontinence and pelvic floor muscle strength, compared with the control group. Symptoms of urinary incontinence were significantly decreased in the training group.

This study is important because it demonstrates the utility of pelvic floor muscle training exercises under ideal circumstances.

However, the intervention provided in this study was intense and sophisticated – and it will be difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to replicate. A physiotherapist provided the training over a 12-week period, with 30-minute sessions three times a week for the first 2 weeks. Women also kept a training diary. Adherence to the protocol was 89% in the training group.

This is very different from the handout on Kegel’s we might be giving to our patients – with adherence to recommendations likely approaching 0%.

But now that we have these data, perhaps we can talk to our female patients more consistently and convincingly about the utility of this approach for reducing incontinence. If we are lucky and have a women’s health clinic with access to this type of expertise, this might be another option – at least before we refer them for higher-risk surgical procedures.

Dr. Ebbert is professor of medicine and a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author. They should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor should they be used as a substitute for medical advice from a qualified, board-certified practicing clinician.

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