What is overactive bladder?
Overactive Bladder (OAB) is defined as urinary urgency (the sudden and urgent desire to urinate) and frequency (urinating too often, which can be during both awake and sleep hours), with or without urgency incontinence (urinary leakage associated with the urgent desire to urinate). It’s often due to involuntary contractions of the urinary bladder in which the bladder squeezes without its owner’s permission. Although it can occur without provocation, it’s commonly triggered by positional changes such as going from sitting to standing, exposure to running water, approaching a bathroom, and when placing the key in the door to one’s home.
The American Urological Association guidelines for OAB recommend pelvic floor muscle (PFM) training as first-line therapy for OAB. Voluntary PFM contractions can effectively inhibit involuntary bladder contractions and squelch the urgency and urgency incontinence.
How does the bladder work?
In order to effectively tap into the powers of the pelvic floor, a basic understanding of bladder function is necessary. During urine storage, the bladder muscle is in a relaxed, non-contracting state, and the urinary sphincters – responsible for urinary control – are engaged (contracted). During urine emptying, the bladder muscle contracts and the sphincter muscles relax synchronously.
This “antagonistic” relationship between the bladder muscle and the PFMs can be used to the advantage of those suffering with OAB. Because people with OAB often have bladders that contract involuntarily causing the symptoms of urgency and frequency, a means of getting the bladder to relax is to intentionally engage the PFMs to benefit from the reflex relaxation of the bladder that occurs with voluntary contraction of the PFMs.
The PFM-Bladder Reflex
This is a very useful and practical reflex that you can easily access. This reflex is unique because it can be engaged voluntarily and because it results in the relaxation of a muscle as opposed to its contraction. Anyone who has ever experienced an urgent desire to urinate or move one’s bowels will find this reflex of great practical use. When the reflex is deployed, it will result in relaxation of both the urinary bladder and rectum and a quieting down of the urgency.
How to Use the PFM-Bladder Reflex To Overcome OAB
When you feel the sudden and urgent desire to urinate, pulse the PFMs five times, briefly but intensely. When the PFM are so deployed, the bladder muscle reflexively relaxes and the feeling of intense urgency should disappear. Likewise, when the PFMs are so deployed, the rectum relaxes and the feeling of intense bowel urgency should diminish. This reflex is a keeper when you are stuck in traffic and have no access to a toilet!
PFM training helps stimulate the inhibitory reflex between the PFMs and the bladder muscle. A PFM training program will stimulate your awareness of the PFMs and enable you to isolate them and increase their strength, tone, and endurance. The inhibitory reflex will become more robust and you’ll develop an enhanced ability to counteract urgency, frequency and urgency incontinence. Urgency can often be diminished and the urgency incontinence can often be abolished.
Getting beyond inhibiting urgency after it occurs is preventing it from occurring in the first place. In order to do so, it’s important to recognize the specific triggers that induce the urgency, frequency or incontinence: hand washing, key in the door, rising from sitting, running water, entering the shower, cold or rainy weather, etc. Prior to exposure to a trigger, rapid flexes of the PFM can preempt the involuntary bladder contraction before it has a chance to occur.
Bottom Line: There are many treatments available for OAB, including decreasing your fluid and caffeine intake, bladder retraining, oral medications, Botox injections into the bladder and neurostimulation. As a first-line approach, tap into the powers of your PFM and harness the natural reflex in which involuntary bladder contractions can be inhibited or prevented by engaging your PFM.