Bladder Problems Part 1

There are a LOT of diagnoses associated with bladder problems: urinary incontinence (UI) which is further classified as stress/urge/mixed, urinary hesitancy/difficulty initiating urine flow, difficulty emptying completely/retention, neurogenic bladder, interstitial cystitis (IC), benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), nocturia (nighttime urination), overactive bladder (OAB), recurrent infections (UTI), bladder and kidney stones, bed-wetting, constipation (yes, it can cause bladder issues), and perhaps more. Each of these has its own set of symptoms, ICD codes, tests, pills, surgeries, exercises, and approaches. They all can be disruptive, embarrassing, isolating, and expensive, causing many people to navigate their lives around them. I want to look at these collectively as I believe they share an often overlooked common denominator that is at least part if not all of the problem: the connective tissues and the fascia.

Restroom sign
For many people locating the nearest restroom when away from home is a high priority. Image accessed at

Looking at the stats, a 2011 study on UI showed that in the US 51% of women and almost 14% of men (often after prostatectomy) suffer from some form of UI. BP are also expensive, with the estimated cost in the US in 2007 of OAB and UI combined at $65.9 billion, with projected costs of $76.2 billion in 2015 and $82.6 billion in 2020. While men deal with BP too, women are far more likely (~75% of all UI) to suffer with it for a variety of reasons:  childbearing, hormones, and anatomy (the female urethra is much shorter than the male).  Or at least women are more likely to seek help for it, which is how things get tracked. Yet while these are legitimate influences on women, they don’t explain it all:  very young women can develop BP prior to childbearing or the hormonal fluctuations of menopause (ask around a high school, especially the track team); women (and men) who have never had children can develop BP too.  UI and BP in general impact all races, genders, and ages.

People often say, “Sure, I have some BP but nothing abnormal.”  My response to that is none is normalAny difficulty is a sign of a problem.  I hear these explanations a lot:

  • At my age I thought this was natural…..
  • After X number of children…..
  • It only happens when I sneeze, cough, jump rope, run, shout, laugh, or jump on a trampoline….
  • I’m OK as long as I don’t wait too long to use the bathroom…..
  • Just since my surgery….
  • Getting up 2-4 times a night for the bathroom is to be expected at my age (actually 0-1 is normal)…..

These are common explanations used by a lot of people.  But common does not mean normal! The internet is loaded with misinformation and opinions that minimize this problem – sometimes from reputable sources and educated people. Even such a distinguished source as NIH (National Institute of Health), while to be commended for putting out their 15 Tips for Keeping the Bladder Healthy, misses (in my opinion) the mark with their recommendations. Then there’s this favorite of mine from the 2013 CrossFit regional competition. The interviewer went around and asked attendees if they peed during their workout – in other words had episodes of urinary incontinence. Most admitted they did, which is pretty sad from this young, seemingly fit crowd. It got even sadder when they found a gynecologist in the audience who informed everyone listening that, in her professional opinion, it was OK to pee during double-unders (a jump rope maneuver). Sigh. For what it’s worth in my professional opinion it’s very not OK. At the end there is a nauseating video of a young woman who lost her bladder control and urinated all over the floor while performing her competition segment. The narrative from the commentators passed it off as just part of the routine that happens to everyone – a sign that you are giving your all, a rite of passage of sorts. Kind of sick.

UI and jump roping
On the left are drama queens cringing when they learn that double-unders are part of the day’s workout. Contrary to what this blogpost may claim, simply performing Kegels is not likely to make a huge or lasting change in their urinary incontinence (accessed at On the right is the gynecologist attending the 2013 CrossFit regional competition who assures the audience that it’s ok to pee during double-unders. Accessed at

One of the most popular theories explaining BP is weakness of the pelvic floor muscles, which are thought to no longer be adequately supporting the bladder.  Along these lines, in 1948 American gynecologist Dr. Arnold Kegel (pronounced Kee-gull) first introduced his revolutionary exercise of contracting the pelvic floor and claimed remarkable changes in UI and pelvic organ prolapse, although his results have not been reproduced in more structured studies.  Yet throughout the years Kegels remain touted as the go-to exercise for most pelvic floor and bladder issues including UI.  Unfortunately there is little research validating how many Kegels need to be done, how long, how often, etc.  If you go to Wikipedia and look up Kegel you will see that they are still begging for research citations to quantify.  Even the Mayo clinic website still upholds Kegels as a front-line intervention. While many still recommend this exercise (see internet) the staggering statistics I shared earlier would suggest that Kegels aren’t quite curing the problem. 

Kegels as the cure-all
I made this slide years ago for a women’s health presentation I gave. It’s kind of funny yet kind of sad. Adapted from the Journal of Women’s Health, the official publication of the APTA Section on Women’s Health (since renamed Pelvic Health). Internet source of photo unknown.

More sophisticated forms of targeted pelvic floor therapy have evolved and are used by many practitioners.  While helpful for some patients, these interventions are not successful for everyone.  The literature supports that much of what is being done in practice leaves a lot to be desired (you can access some research articles here). Like Dr. Kegel, initially the focus of most BP regimens was on strengthening the pelvic floor. However, perhaps owing to failure of this approach to rectify all BP, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction to propose that a tense/tight pelvic floor may be the problem for others.  For this population strengthening is contraindicated, and instead relaxation and sometimes stretching of the pelvic floor are thought to be needed. Either approach (strengthen or relax/stretch) has been shown to be of some benefit for some people sometimes. But in my experience there are multiple problems with relying entirely on either of these premises: 

  • They often depend on the ongoing performance of exercise or other techniques which people eventually abandon, only to have their problems return.
  • They often require multiple visits with a clinician/provider. 
  • They can take an extended time period to yield results. 
  • They often require internal pelvic examination and treatment techniques, which many people would prefer to avoid if at all possible.
  • There are many people who don’t respond satisfactorily to the strengthening, relaxing/stretching, or internal approaches.     
Pelvic floor strengthening vs relaxing
I have watched the pendulum swing both ways when it comes to addressing bladder problems. Initially the emphasis was on pelvic floor strengthening. But for many the problems persisted, prompting consideration that perhaps a too-tight pelvic floor was the problem and relaxation was more appropriate. Internet source of cartoon on left unknown. Frog on right accessed at

I’ve brought up internal pelvic examination and treatment, also known as pelvic floor therapy, so let’s talk more about it. I’ll go out on a limb here and share my opinion that I believe the pelvic floor (PF) is overemphasized in the treatment of BP, as well as many other pelvic problems. The PF is certainly a necessary and amazing part of the body related to multiple functions. But I compare a targeted focus on this structure for treating pelvic problems, like BP, to focusing on the quadriceps (quads) for treating knee pain. Healthy function and movement involving any muscle group requires that the nervous system elements (muscle spindle and golgi tendon organ) be embedded in a flexible, adaptable fascial matrix. This applies to the PF as well as the quads. Considering that anatomically this fascial matrix is continuous from head to toe, one should then be open to the possibility that dysfunction outside of the quads and the PF can exert an impact on the knee or the internal organs. This study showed such a relationship between movement at the pelvis and also at the gastrocnemius – a calf muscle. Perhaps a lack of appreciation for the global, connected nature of the fascia and connective tissues is why the targeted focus on strengthening or relaxing the PF does not yield optimal results for many people. Certainly there are cases where PF emphasis and internal work is warranted. But in my experience the greater majority of patients I see accomplish positive change without “going in there.” It’s why I prefer to be called a pelvic therapist and not a pelvic floor therapist.

Referral patterns of muscles/fascia to pelvic region
These ever-popular images from the trigger point manuals by Travell and Simons depict the network connections between other parts of the body and the pelvic region. Accessed at

Urodynamic testing is sometimes utilized to help arrive at a diagnosis. While many people feel more comfortable having a title for their problem, for me the bigger issue is not what to call it but how to change it. There are multiple BP medications aggressively advertised to us, a reflection of the fact that the US and New Zealand have the most permissive pharmaceutical advertising in the world. While pharmaceuticals can help with suppressing symptoms, they do not change the underlying problem, and also always have side effects. Herbals and supplements are popular and seem to entail fewer side effects, but still require ongoing use to accomplish minimal change. Devices such as electrical stimulation, pessaries, vaginal weights, pelvic wands, and dilators are also low risk interventions that can often be used at home. But they are also somewhat of a hassle to deal with, can be costly, and yield mixed and often disappointing results – as do all these interventions.

There is a wide variety of devices sold in the management of a host of pelvic issues, including bladder problems. Clockwise from top left: Electrical stimulation shorts (, internal electrical stimulation (, pelvic trigger point wand and weights (, pessaries (, and vaginal and anal dilators (

Specialty equipment such as biofeedback and abdominal ultrasound (US) are often used in conjunction with pelvic floor exercises. These are typically performed only in a clinic with a trained practitioner. Biofeedback is utilized to promote pelvic floor muscle contraction or relaxation, depending on which is being proposed as the problem. US can visualize the position and movement of the bladder, and sometimes show that the bladder neck is not in an ideal position, thought to contribute to UI. As mentioned earlier, a popular culprit to blame for this is a weak pelvic floor.

Of course there’s always surgery, which is certainly the most drastic measure and always carries multiple inherent risks including permanent alteration of the anatomy. Bladder surgeries are typically focus on lifting and supporting the bladder to compensate for a presumed weak and dysfunctional pelvic floor. While surgery can be helpful, the improvement garnered is often temporary and typically leads to further surgeries.  I would suggest that the temporary improvement associated with many of these interventions stems from a lack of attention to the root cause of the problem. 

This brings us to the question: what is the root cause of BP?  Certainly if there is an infection it needs to be dealt with straight up. But I will say that recurrent, unresponsive problems in the absence of clear pathology signal that the cause driving the BP is not being rectified. My training and experience, as well as the research support that it’s typically not exclusively the pelvic floor nor the organ (bladder, ureter, urethra, kidneys) that’s at fault but the fascial environment in which these structures are trying to function.  That’s why tests studying the organ/bladder are often negative or inconclusive.  They are looking at the organ itself, which is typically not the problem.  In contrast, the fascial environment refers to the fascia enveloping and going into the organ (investing fascia) and the fascia that attaches the organs to the trunk walls (insertional fascia).  For a better understanding of this you can see my earlier posts on Fascial Manipulation for Internal Dysfunction, which explains more about the fascia of the internal organs.

Next time I’ll get into more on strategies for addressing BP including Fascial Manipulation and other interventions.

Wishing you health and joy,


Published by Colleen Murphy Whiteford

I am a physiotherapist, graduate of Saint Louis University Class of 1984. I married my best friend and business partner, Bill, who is also a physiotherapist, in 1988. We have worked together all these years - an example of God's grace! Together we started Appalachian Physical Therapy which continues to thrive. I am a big believer in the power of touch, the manual therapies, and treating holistically. There are many alternatives to medications, surgeries, and testing, but people are often uninformed. My perspective emphasizes the role of the connective tissues including the fascia. Lack of attention to this structure is the source of many physical ailments - our bodies are truly fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139)! I am passionate about helping people of all ages and diagnoses maximize their health, and empowering them to understand their role in management and prevention of problems.

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