If you’re someone who lives with an overactive bladder (OAB), you’re likely looking for ways to manage your condition. People who’ve tried lifesyte modifications, medication, or both but haven’t found adequate relief might be considering other options, including electrical stimulation, to treat OAB.

An OAB is common: about 17% of adults experience it, especially older adults. An OAB can also affect children.

Read on for what to know about noninvasive treatment, including what it’s used for, the different types of treatments, what the procedures involve, and how successful the methods are at relieving OAB symptoms.

An OAB describes a condition characterized by a frequent urge to urinate. People with an OAB experience a more frequent need to urinate than others and often feel an urgent need to empty their bladder. Some people with an OAB also experience incontinence, where they leak urine.

The first line of defense in treating an OAB involves home remedies and medications. If these methods don’t work, a doctor or healthcare professional may recommend methods that require more action, including electrical stimulation.

Electrical stimulation, also known as neuromodulation therapy, involves using electrical currents to stimulate the nerves that are connected to your bladder. This works to get the nerve signals between your bladder and brain working correctly. Electrical stimulation can help to reduce the sensations of urinary urgency that people with an OAB experience.

This treatment can be especially helpful in older people with an OAB, as there can be an increased risk of dementia with antimuscarinic medications and other treatment styles. Because of the possible long-term side effects of these medications, noninvasive procedures such as electrical stimulation are a much safer way to treat their bladders.

At this time, electrical stimulation has been found to have varying degrees of success in treating an OAB. A study from 2016 found that electrical stimulation is likely more effective than pelvic floor therapy alone, or a placebo, at reducing symptoms of an OAB. But the study researchers also say that there wasn’t enough reliable evidence to be sure of their findings.

Other studies have found more clearly positive results. A 2021 study published in the International Brazilian Journal of Urology found that intravaginal (outside the vagina) and transvaginal (through the vagina) electrical stimulation was more effective than bladder training on its own in reducing symptoms of an OAB in women.

Other studies have found electrical stimulation to be helpful in treating children with an OAB. For example, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology found that a procedure called percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation was an effective short-term treatment for an OAB in children.

There are two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved types of electrical stimulation for an OAB: percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS) and sacral neuromodulation (SNS).

Percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS)

PTNS is a nonsurgical option that uses electrical stimulation to control an OAB.

With PTNS, a small-sized electrode is fixated on the lower part of your leg, close to your ankle. This electrode sends signals to your tibial nerve, which runs all the way to your lower back. Often, PTNS requires an average of 12 treatments to work properly.

One of the latest models of these stimulators is no larger than a nickel and can be implanted under the skin of your lower leg. This implant is a simple procedure that can be done under local anesthetic in a urologist’s office.

Sacral neuromodulation (SNS)

SNS works by altering how the sacral nerve functions. The sacral nerve controls the emptying of your bladder, and when you have an OAB, your sacral nerve isn’t functioning correctly.

SNS is a more invasive procedure than PTNS and involves surgery. There are two parts to this surgery. In the first part, an electrical wire is implanted in the lower part of your back, which is connected to a pacemaker. This pacemaker sends signals to your sacral nerve.

There’s a trial period where you and a doctor see if this helps your OAB symptoms. If it does, a second surgery is necessary to implant a permanent pacemaker.

The side effects of electrical stimulation are generally minimal, and the procedure is usually tolerated well in children as well as adults. Side effects may vary depending on which procedure you have done.

The side effects of SNS may involve:

  • pain at the implantation injection site
  • infections
  • improper placement of the implant

The side effects of PTNS may include:

When to call a doctor

It’s rare to experience life threatening side effects from electrical stimulation procedures.

But if you’re experiencing any new symptoms since your procedure, including worsening pain, swelling, or symptoms of infection, contact a healthcare professional.

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As of 2001, Medicare covers some electrical stimulation procedures to treat an OAB, including sacral nerve stimulation and pelvic floor electrical stimulation. There may be certain rules and restrictions for coverage depending on what type of treatment you’re getting and what your prior medical history is.

Coverage from private insurance companies will vary too, depending on your plan’s coverage. It’s best to contact a representative of your health insurance plan directly to understand your coverage for these procedures.

Living with an overactive bladder

An OAB can affect all aspects of your life. It’s not only physically uncomfortable, but it involves making many trips to the bathroom, which some may find embarrassing. People with an OAB may experience relationship issues, difficulty sleeping, issues with their sex lives, and other mental health challenges related to their daily experiences.

But you’re not alone, and help is out there. Along with treatments aimed at lessening your symptoms, resources are available to people living with an OAB. Some organizations that can help you find help and support include:

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Electrical stimulation can be helpful for people who live with an OAB. The two main types of electrical stimulation — PTNS and SNS — generally have high success rates and come with minimal side effects.

If you have further questions about these procedures or if you’d like to know if electrical stimulation may be right for you, please reach out to a healthcare professional. You may also want to look into strategies such as bladder training.