Can acupuncture help with incontinence and other urinary problems?

Problems with weeing are difficult to talk about! When passing water/urine is painful and frequent, it is usually called cystitis, but when it is too slow, too urgent, or just not fully under your control it is more difficult to describe. All of this can also be deeply embarrassing. In Western medicine these symptoms are usually diagnosed as problems with your bladder, and treated with tablets or surgery. In contrast, Chinese medicine evaluates them as part of how your whole body and mind systems are working. Once I have taken time to understand you as an individual, acupuncture treatment can be very effective. However, there are some symptoms that you should always check out with your GP: blood in the urine (possible infection or an early sign of cancer) and gradually becoming very thirsty and producing lots of pale urine (possible early diabetes).

The problem most of us dread the most is incontinence – not being able to control our wee. Bedwetting is common in children of course, and usually improves as the years go by, but it can continue into teenage years or adulthood. I recently treated a 30 year old woman, who I will call Alice, who woke with a wet bed most nights unless she took the nasal spray that her GP prescribed her. She had no other health problems, but I found signs that the system that included her kidney and bladder was weak compared to her other systems. This was what I would call a constitutional weakness and in terms of the Five Elements, I treated her Water element. Very slowly, over many months, her bladder gained more control. She also found that her headaches disappeared, she slept better, and she felt much stronger in herself – in her body and in her mind and emotions. Alice now rarely needs her spray, but still uses it if she is particularly tired or stressed.

Another important factor for Alice was that she was so busy feeding her family that she was not eating well herself. This meant that her body was not making enough Qi (Qi is often translated as energy). This lack of Qi showed itself in terms of a bladder problem because her constitutional weakness was in that area – in the Water element. The idea that we all have a ‘weak spot’ in our make-up is part of our everyday experience of health – some people regulalry come down with colds, some with headaches, some with digestive problems. In Chinese medicine that constitutional weakness is considered very central to treatment and I am always, at one level, treating people to strengthen their constitutional element. Whenever we have any weakness of Qi, eating regular nutritious meals is important. Once Alice understood this, she asked her family to make sure that she ate properly as well as them. This played an important part in her recovery and increased energy and strength.

Another common urinary problem is a sudden very urgent need to wee which, if a toilet isn’t nearby, can lead to incontinence – either just a dribble or sometimes the whole lot. People with this problem know where all the public toilets are and can be very restricted in venturing out far from home. Once again this symptom requires me to make a careful assessment in terms of other symptoms and signs to understand why it has come about. In Chinese medicine the cause of bladder problems may lie in several of the body systems or meridians, all of which need acupuncture to bring them back into balance. For example, I am treating a middle aged man who for many years has had a problem with a very sudden urgent need to have a wee, sometimes leading to incontinence. I have found that for him this is due to a mixture of weakness in his kidney/bladder system and increased heat from the system that runs through his liver (not indicating liver disease in a Western medicine sense). He knows he is a very hot person – ‘always have been’ – and always wears short sleeved shirts. The heat is evident to me when I take his pulse which is rather fast and ‘pounding’. Heat like this often has an emotional cause and is probably linked to his daily frustrations with caring for an elderly relative. Just a few acupuncture treatments to clear this heat and get his Qi moving smoothly round his body has improved his symptoms, but it will take many more treatments to build up the underlying constitutional weakness and to break the cycle of frustration and heat.

These urinary problems are not usually the main reason for seeking acupuncture, but treating them alongside other health problems is rewarding for me and a great relief to my patients. Perhaps if we talked more about urinary problems people would find them less embarrassing and would seek treatment for them at an earlier stage.

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