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YOUR HEALTH: A pacemaker to stop incontinence

An updated device is providing lasting relief for patients with urinary or bowel incontinence.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It's a taboo topic that nobody talks about.

But almost one in six Americans suffer from urinary or bowel incontinence.

That's more than the number of people with Alzheimer's, diabetes or breast cancer. 

Though lifestyle changes and medication can relieve symptoms for some, other patients may require advanced therapies.

Linda Brice faced the uncomfortable facts years ago.

"I could not feel my legs and I gushed about a quarter more of urine all over the floor and that was kind of my introduction to incontinence," Brice said.

She was an Air Force captain, a nurse and even a professor with six college degrees under her belt.

The 70-year-old started suffering from incontinence two decades ago.

"You don't want to tell people I go to the bathroom everywhere. I can't control it," Brice said.

Medications were not strong enough to treat her symptoms, so doctors suggested she have a device called the InterStim implanted to control her symptoms.

"It is fundamentally a pacemaker system that helps reregulate these abnormal signaling to the bladder that's resulting in the overactive bladder symptoms," explained Dr. Melissa Kaufman, a Vanderbilt University Urology professor.

It works by providing electrical signaling to interrupt the abnormal signaling going from the nerves to the bladder. 

Before, these devices had implantable batteries that would need to be replaced about every five years.

"But this new rechargeable device gives us on average 15 years of time before it would need a replacement," Kaufman said.

For patients like Brice, that has made all the difference.

"It's given me back my freedom," she said. "It's given back my quality of life."

The InterStim is one of the smallest versions of the device that has been created. 

Kaufman says it is smaller than the typical USB thumb drive. 

She also says patients usually feel relief of their symptoms within a week from when the device is implanted.  

While many women are successfully treated with the InterStim, it is designed for both men and women.

This is a common problem

Urinary incontinence is the unintentional passing of urine. 

According to the American Urological Association, one-quarter to one-third of men and women in the U.S. suffer from urinary incontinence.

About 33 million have overactive bladder, or OAB, representing symptoms of urgency, frequency, and with or without urge incontinence. 

There are several types of urinary incontinence including:

  • Stress incontinence — when urine leaks out at times when your bladder is under pressure, like when you cough or sneeze.
  • Urge incontinence — when urine leaks as you feel a sudden, intense urge to pee, or soon afterward.
  • Overflow incontinence — when you're unable to fully empty your bladder, which causes frequent leaking.
  • Total incontinence — when your bladder cannot store any urine at all, which causes you to pass urine constantly or have frequent leaking.

Another breakthrough in technology

According to the Bassett Healthcare Network, a new technology called the Emsella chair can relieve patients suffering from urinary incontinence. 

The chair is an FDA-cleared device that provides effective treatment for stress and urge incontinence. 

It transmits electromagnetic stimulation to the pelvic muscles, producing the equivalent of 11,000 contractions in 28 minutes of treatment. 

The BTL Emsella chair, available at Bassett Medical Center's women's health clinic in Cooperstown, New York, is not currently covered by insurance and costs $300 per treatment.  

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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