Pelvic Floor Problems in the Adult Athlete (Part 2): Stress Urinary Incontinence or “I leak when I jump rope, box jump, run…etc”

As promised, this is part 2 of my series on pelvic floor problems in the adult athlete. Part 1 discussed pelvic floor pain- what it is, how it happens, and how it is treated. If you missed it, you can still check it out here. Today, we will cover stress urinary incontinence in athletes.

Guess what? Leaking is not normal. Ever. Never. Nope.

At some point over the years, women became convinced that after having children it suddenly becomes normal to leak urine when coughing or sneezing. Or, that if you work out really really hard, or jump rope really quick, or jump on a trampoline, it’s normal to pee a little bit. But guess what? It’s not. And I firmly believe that no woman (or man!) should have to “just deal with it.”

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Bladder problems during exercise are very common– Here are some stats:

  • This summary article estimated that 47 % of women who regularly engage in exercise report some degree of urinary incontinence. (Other articles have shown big variety, with one review stating the prevalence varies from 10-55%)
  • This study found that in 105 female volleyball players, 65% had at least one symptom of stress urinary incontinence and/or urgency.
  • In elite athletes (including dancers), this study found a prevalence of urinary problems at 52%.

Summary: Urine loss during exercise is COMMON. And it’s about time we do something about it! 

So, what is stress urinary incontinence (SUI)? Basically, SUI is involuntary leakage of urine associated with an increase in intra-abdominal pressure.  For those who exercise regularly, this can occur with running, jumping (jumping rope, jumping jacks, box jumps, trampoline), dancing (zumba, too!), weight lifting, squatting, pilates/yoga, bootcamp classes, kicking, and many other forms of exercise.

**Note: Although SUI is one of the most common forms of urinary dysfunction we see in athletes, other problems can exist as well. This can include stronger urinary urgency, frequency (going too often), and/or difficulties emptying the bladder or starting the stream. Bowel dysfunction is also a problem with many athletes, and can include bowel leakage, constipation, or difficulty emptying the bowels. 

Why does it happen? There are many causes of bladder leakage, so it is always important to be medically evaluated. We know that hormones can play a role, as well as anatomical factors (pelvic organ prolapse or urethral hypermobility). Other factors can include childbirth history, body mechanics, breathing patterns/dysfunction, obesity–and I’ll add here, previous orthopedic injury or low back/pelvic girdle pain.

From a musculoskeletal viewpoint, SUI has to do with a failure of the body to control intra-abdominal pressure. Basically, there are forces through the abdomen and pelvis during movements, and our body has to control and disperse those forces. The deepest layer of muscles that work together for pressure modulation are the pelvic floor muscles, the transverse abdominis, the multifidus, and the diaphragm. In terms of the pelvic floor muscles specifically, remember that we want strong, flexible, well-timed muscles.  Tight irritated muscles can contribute to UI just as much as weak overly stretched out muscles. We have discussed this many many times on this blog, but if you’d like a review of that, read this piece on why kegels are not always appropriate for UI and check out the videos by my colleague, Julie Wiebe, posted there. It is also important that a person has properly firing muscles around the pelvis–especially the glutes! but also the other muscles around the pelvis that help to move you.

The way in which a person moves can also be a significant contributing factor to SUI. For example, if a person holds his or her breath during jump rope, the diaphragm is not able to move well and the entire pressure system will be impacted (leading to possible leaks!). I have also seen women develop SUI or pelvic organ prolapse after performing regular exercise using incorrect form/alignment or after performing exercises that were too difficult for them to do correctly. Often times, this leads to compensatory strategies that can make pressure modulation very difficult for the body.

What can you do about it? First things first–stop “just dealing with it!” I recommend a medical evaluation to start, but always encourage people to seek conservative treatments first prior to medications and/or surgery. The best person to evaluate you from a musculoskeletal perspective is a PT who is specialized in treating pelvic floor dysfunction (and if you live in metro Atlanta and have SUI, come and see me!). The physical therapist will do a comprehensive evaluation which will include:

  • A detailed history, including your obstetric history (if applicable), daily habits, diet/fluid intake, and your regular exercise routine
  • Evaluation of your movement patterns (specific exercises, weightlifting, etc.) which are causing you problems
  •  Head to toe evaluation of your spine, ribcage, abdominal wall, hips, breathing patterns, alignment/posture, knees…all the way down to your feet to see how your movement at each spot could be influencing your pressure system. We also look at how your various muscles fire to help to identify which muscles may not be firing at the right times or which muscles may be tight and impacting your movements.
  • Evaluation of the pelvic floor muscles. As the pelvic floor muscles are located internally, the best way to assess them is with an internal vaginal or rectal assessment. That being said, if you are uncomfortable with that, there are options for external assessment that will help the PT gather some information (just know that this will likely be less thorough).

Treatment for SUI often includes: 

  • Re-establishing the proper timing and coordination of the pelvic floor, diaphragm, multifidus and transverse abdominis to stabilize the lumbopelvic region and modulate pressure during movements. Remember, our goal is to optimize this team working together–it’s not just about the pelvic floor, and kegels are not always the answer.
  • Retraining the proper firing of the muscles around the pelvis during movements.
  • Correction of postural/alignment problems which could be contributing factors
  • Manual therapy and specific exercises to improve previous findings in spine, hips, knees, etc.
  • Education on proper alignment, breathing patterns, and movement sequences during preferred exercises.
  • Education on bladder health, dietary patterns, fluid intake, patterns for emptying bladder, toilet positioning, etc. to encourage healthy bladder function.
  • Treatment of co-existing bowel dysfunction, sexual dysfunction or orthopedic pain (as this is often all connected!).
  • **Some women also benefit from using assistive equipment like a tampon or a pessary to help stabilize the urethra or support the vaginal wall during exercise depending on her specific situation.

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My colleagues write very well, and have written several excellent posts on pelvic floor problems in athletes. Here are a few of my favorites:

I hope this was helpful to you! I would love to hear your thoughts– if you have questions or comments please leave them below! Have a great Wednesday!

~ Jessica

**Do you have an idea for blog post or is there a topic you’re just itching to learn about? Feel free to contact me or comment on any post to share your ideas! 

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