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Overactive Bladder? How Electrical Stimulation Could Help

If you have an overactive bladder, the symptoms can be annoying, inconvenient and embarrassing. You may feel the need to urinate frequently or feel such a powerful urge to urinate that you need to rush to a bathroom. You can be afraid you might leak urine, or worried that you’d be too far away from a bathroom when you’re out in public and you need to go.

A lot of people think they need to put up with an overactive bladder, but some treatments can help you regain control over your urinary habits. One to consider is called percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS). 

Christian Twiss, MD, a urogynecologist and urologist with Banner – University Medicine North in Tucson, AZ, explained more about how the treatment works and what the process is like for people who try it. 

What is PTNS?

PTNS is a therapy that medical professionals can provide in an office setting. It doesn’t require any medication. With it, your health care provider inserts an acupuncture needle in your lower leg, close to the tibial nerve, which runs from your knee to your foot in the back of your leg. Then, they connect the needle to a small electrical stimulator. 

“The electrical stimulation of the tibial nerve also stimulates the nerve roots that supply the bladder and help to normalize bladder function,” Dr. Twiss said.

While you may not have heard of PTNS, these types of therapies for overactive bladder have been around for over two decades. “They have withstood the test of time for treating this condition,” Dr. Twiss said.

How does it help with an overactive bladder?

Stimulating the nerve changes certain nerve signals, stabilizing your bladder function. So, PTNS reduces some of the most bothersome symptoms of overactive bladder, such as:

  • Frequent urination
  • Urgency, or needing to run to the bathroom for fear of urinary leakage
  • Incontinence that can occur with episodes of urgency, called urge incontinence

How does the process work?

“It takes some time for the therapy to start working,” Dr. Twiss said. So, for the first three months of treatment, you come to the clinic weekly for a 30-minute treatment. In an exam room, you’ll extend your leg, and the health care provider will insert the thin needle, then send the electrical impulses to the nerve. You may feel tingling or pulsating, but you should not feel pain. 

If the therapy works well for you, meaning that your symptoms are reduced by 50% or more, you can usually space treatments out to once a month. You’ll need to continue monthly sessions for the treatment to keep working. 

Are there side effects?

They are rare. Some people get irritation or discomfort at the site of the acupuncture needle insertion.  

Is it an option for everyone?

No. Most people can try it, but if you have an implanted cardiac pacemaker or defibrillator, you shouldn’t have PTNS.

How effective is it?

Research shows that PTNS works just as well as medications you take by mouth for controlling overactive bladder symptoms. 

What other treatments can help with overactive bladder?

If PTNS isn’t the right choice for you, you still have other options you can try, including:

  • Oral medications
  • Botox injections into the bladder 
  • Sacral nerve modulation, which is similar to PTNS and involves placing a tiny pacemaker to stimulate the bladder nerves electrically

The bottom line

It can be annoying and embarrassing to deal with the symptoms of an overactive bladder and to constantly be worried about finding a bathroom nearby. A treatment called percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation might help you improve your bladder control. To talk to a urologist about your bladder control issues and treatment options, connect with Banner Health. 

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