Electrical Stimulation for Urinary Incontinence

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Electrical Stimulation for Urinary Incontinence

Treatment Overview

Electrical stimulation is used to treat urinary incontinence by sending a mild electric current to nerves in the lower back or the pelvic muscles that are involved in urination.

You may be able to provide electrical stimulation therapy at home using a unit with a vaginal or anal electrode. Timing and duration of therapy varies. For example, your treatment may consist of 12 weeks during which you have 15-minute stimulation sessions twice a day. This kind of stimulation has been used for both urge and stress incontinence.

How vaginal or anal electrical stimulation works is not well understood. The stimulation may make the muscles contract, producing an effect similar to Kegel exercises, which strengthen the muscles by contracting them frequently. The stimulation may also encourage the growth of nerve cells that cause the muscles to contract.

Sacral nerve stimulation (SNS) has been used for severe urge incontinence or overactive bladder that hasn't been helped by other treatment. In SNS, the doctor puts an electrical stimulator under your skin above your buttocks. This stimulator looks like a pacemaker. It is attached to electrodes that send pulses to a nerve in your lower back (sacrum). The sacral nerve plays a role in bladder storage and emptying.

Why It Is Done

Electrical stimulation may be used to treat:

How Well It Works

Vaginal or anal electrical stimulation has been tried mostly in women who have urge, stress, and mixed incontinence. There is some research that it can help reduce how often women have incontinence.1 Anal electrical stimulation has been tried in men. But there is no evidence that it works.

Sacral nerve stimulation (SNS) has improved urge urinary incontinence and overactive bladder in more than half the people who try it.2


Vaginal or anal electrical stimulation can cause pain, tenderness, and bleeding.

The risks of sacral nerve stimulation include:

  • Pain where the device is implanted under your skin.
  • Movement of the implanted device from its original spot.
  • Infection.

What To Think About

Before trying electrical stimulation for urinary incontinence, talk to your doctor about the following:

  • Can your incontinence be treated with behavioural or exercise therapy before trying medicine? Behavioural or exercise therapy, such as bladder training or pelvic floor (Kegel) exercises, is non-invasive, can be done at home, is inexpensive, has no side effects, and does not limit future therapy options if it is not successful.
  • How much experience does your doctor have in treating incontinence? Some doctors do not realize the impact that urinary incontinence can have on a person's life and may disregard your concerns.
  • Could any medicines you are taking for another condition be causing your incontinence? Some medicines (especially diuretics) cause the body to produce greater amounts of urine, which may contribute to incontinence problems. Take them when you will easily be able to get to a washroom.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.



  1. Onwude JL (2009). Stress incontinence, search date June 2008. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
  2. Vasavada SP, Rackley RR (2007). Electrical stimulation for storage and emptying disorders. In AJ Wein et al., eds., Campbell-Walsh Urology, 9th ed., vol. 3, pp. 2147–2167. Philadelphia: Saunders-Elsevier.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Avery L. Seifert, MD - Urology
Last Revised October 28, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.