Urinary incontinence, pelvic floor dysfunction, exercise and sport

Sports Med. 2004;34(7):451-64. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200434070-00004.


Urinary incontinence is defined as "the complaint of any involuntary leakage of urine" and is a common problem in the female population with prevalence rates varying between 10% and 55% in 15- to 64-year-old women. The most frequent form of urinary incontinence in women is stress urinary incontinence, defined as "involuntary leakage on effort or exertion, or on sneezing or coughing". The aim of this article is to systematically review the literature on urinary incontinence and participation in sport and fitness activities with a special emphasis on prevalence and treatment in female elite athletes. Stress urinary incontinence is a barrier to women's participation in sport and fitness activities and, therefore, it may be a threat to women's health, self-esteem and well-being. The prevalence during sports among young, nulliparous elite athletes varies between 0% (golf) and 80% (trampolinists). The highest prevalence is found in sports involving high impact activities such as gymnastics, track and field, and some ball games. A 'stiff' and strong pelvic floor positioned at an optimal level inside the pelvis may be a crucial factor in counteracting the increases in abdominal pressure occurring during high-impact activities. There are no randomised controlled trials or reports on the effect of any treatment for stress urinary incontinence in female elite athletes. However, strength training of the pelvic floor muscles has been shown to be effective in treating stress urinary incontinence in parous females in the general population. In randomised controlled trials, reported cure rates, defined as <2g of leakage on pad tests, varied between 44% and 69%. Pelvic floor muscle training has no serious adverse effects and has been recommended as first-line treatment in the general population. Use of preventive devices such as vaginal tampons or pessaries can prevent leakage during high impact physical activity. The pelvic floor muscles need to be much stronger in elite athletes than in other women. There is a need for more basic research on pelvic floor muscle function during physical activity and the effect of pelvic floor muscle training in female elite athletes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Muscles / physiopathology
  • Pelvic Floor / physiopathology*
  • Sports*
  • Urinary Incontinence / physiopathology
  • Urinary Incontinence / therapy*