Acupuncture and incontinence

There are some symptoms that many of us have and few of us talk about. With around a third of UK women experiencing symptoms of urinary incontinence in a given month (1), bladder control is a problem for more people than we realise. For an article in the February 2016 edition of Ciren Wellbeing magazine, I was asked whether acupuncture is a viable treatment option.

Q: Is there scientific evidence that acupuncture can help incontinence?

Yes. I often see two types of incontinence in my clinic: overactive bladder syndrome (where you feel like you need to go urgently and often) and stress incontinence (where urine leaks out when abdominal pressure increases suddenly, e.g. when you cough or jump). Scientific studies provide good evidence that acupuncture is effective for overactive bladder syndrome. Animal studies have shown that acupuncture relaxes smooth muscle and so increases bladder capacity, and decreases a chemical in the brain (called c-Fos) that causes stress incontinence in rats (2).

Q: Who typically comes to see you with these symptoms?

There doesn’t seem to be a ‘typical’ person. I find that symptoms affect both genders at all ages, including bedwetting teenagers, women after pregnancy, men who have had prostate surgery, people in mid-life with other conditions that affect bladder function like multiple sclerosis, and even an athlete in his 20’s who found that a punishing training regime affected his bladder.

Q: What advice would you give people with urinary incontinence?

The advice I give is informed by each person’s particular Chinese medical diagnosis. Many different things can affect bladder control, so what is good for someone whose symptoms are worse in cold weather (e.g. putting a hot water bottle on their lower abdomen) may be bad for someone who has a burning sensation when going to the toilet.

Q: Would you use any other Chinese therapies apart from acupuncture?

Again, it depends on the diagnosis and each person’s treatment will be tailor made specifically for them. For some, I may warm acupuncture points using a herb called moxa. For others, I might prescribe a specialist (organic!) tea from China, or suggest that they see a Chinese Herbalist and take herbs alongside acupuncture treatment. I may use Chinese dietary therapy and suggest what to eat, what to avoid, when to eat and how to prepare their food. I may also prescribe certain Qi Gong exercises to practice at home.

  1. Best Treatments, Clinical Evidence for Patients from the BMJ. (Accessed 10.10.2006)

  2. Urinary Incontinence Factsheet from the British Acupuncture Council.

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