Their study of 85 women with the condition, marked by an overwhelming and frequent urge to urinate, found that a few sessions of acupuncture improved these symptoms for many.
Women who received treatment to acupuncture “points” thought to affect bladder control, including areas in the lower back and abdomen, reported fewer trips to the bathroom and less urgency to urinate, on average, than their peers who had acupuncture at other sites on the skin.
Both groups reported improvement in urge incontinence, or urinary leakage.
Though the study results aren’t definitive, acupuncture may be worth a try for women with overactive bladder, said Dr. Sandra L. Emmons, the study’s lead author.
“We don’t have a good treatment for overactive bladder,” said Emmons, of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
Given that, and the fact that acupuncture has minimal side effects, she said she thinks there’s enough evidence to suggest it as a treatment option.
Emmons and colleague Dr. Lesley Otto report their findings in the July issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
Acupuncture is among the most widely practiced forms of traditional or alternative medicine, with research showing it may aid in conditions such as arthritis and post-surgery nausea. Practitioners use fine needles to pierce the skin at specific points, and then manipulate the needle by hand or, in some cases, with electrical stimulation.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture points are connected to pathways in the body that conduct energy, and stimulating the points promotes the flow of this energy. Modern research has suggested that acupuncture may work by altering signals among nerve cells or affecting the release of various chemicals of the central nervous system.
The procedure may help overactive bladder symptoms by decreasing nerve stimulation to the bladder, Emmons said.
For their study, she and Otto recruited 85 women with symptoms of overactive bladder with urge incontinence; they made at least eight trips to the bathroom a day, often had an urgent need to urinate, and regularly had problems with leaking.
The women were randomly assigned to receive either acupuncture to sites associated with bladder function - on the inner leg, low back, lower abdomen and outer knee - or “placebo” acupuncture to other sites on the body.
After four weekly sessions, women who received the bladder-targeting acupuncture had a drop-off in both frequency and urgency symptoms. There was no clear benefit in the other acupuncture group.
On the other hand, incontinence problems waned significantly in both groups. The reason for this is unclear, but it’s possible, Emmons said, that had the study been larger, it would have detected a benefit of the bladder-specific acupuncture technique over the other.
It’s unclear how long the effects on bladder symptoms may last. In addition, Emmons noted, more research is needed to see whether acupuncture could be more effective if combined with medication or other available treatments.
SOURCE: Obstetrics & Gynecology, July 2005.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD