The aim of this review was to assess the effectiveness, safety, and cost of sacral nerve stimulation (SNS) to treat urinary urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, urinary retention, and fecal incontinence.
Background: Condition and Target Population
Urinary urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, urinary retention, and fecal incontinence are prevalent, yet rarely discussed, conditions. They are rarely discussed because patients may be uncomfortable disclosing their symptoms to a health professional or may be unaware that there are treatment options for these conditions. Briefly, urge incontinence is an involuntary loss of urine upon a sudden urge. Urgency-frequency is an uncontrollable urge to void, which results in frequent, small-volume voids. People with urgency-frequency may or may not also experience chronic pelvic pain. Urinary retention refers to the inability to void despite having the urge to void. It can be caused by a hypocontractile detrusor (weak or no bladder muscle contraction) or obstruction due to urethral overactivity. Fecal incontinence is a loss of voluntary bowel control.
The prevalence of urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, and urinary retention in the general population is 3.3% to 8.2%, and the prevalence of fecal incontinence is 1.4% to 1.9%. About three-quarters of these people will be successfully treated by behaviour and/or drug therapy. For those who do not respond to these therapies, the options for treatment are management with diapers or pads, or surgery. The surgical procedures are generally quite invasive, permanent, and are associated with complications. Pads and/or diapers are used throughout the course of treatment as different therapies are tried. Patients who respond successfully to treatment may still require pads or diapers, but to a lesser extent.
The Technology Being Reviewed: Sacral Nerve Stimulation
Sacral nerve stimulation is a procedure where a small device attached to an electrode is implanted in the abdomen or buttock to stimulate the sacral nerves in an attempt to manage urinary urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, urinary retention, and fecal incontinence. The device was originally developed to manage urinary urge incontinence; however, it has also been used in patients with urgency-frequency, urinary retention, and fecal incontinence. SNS is intended for patients who are refractory to behaviour, drug, and/or interventional therapy.
There are 2 phases in the SNS process: first, patients must undergo a test stimulation phase to determine if they respond to sacral nerve stimulation. If there is a 50% or greater improvement in voiding function, then the patient is considered a candidate for the next phase, implantation.
The standard Medical Advisory Secretariat search strategy was used to locate international health technology assessments and English-language journal articles published from 2000 to November 2004. The Medical Advisory Secretariat also conducted Internet searches of Medscape (1) and the manufacturer’s website (2) to identify product information and recent reports on trials that were unpublished but that were presented at international conferences. In addition, the Web site Current Controlled Trials (3) was searched for ongoing randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigating the role of sacral nerve stimulation in the management of voiding conditions.
Summary of Findings
Four health technology assessments were found that reviewed SNS in patients with urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, and/or urinary retention. One assessment was found that reviewed SNS in patients with fecal incontinence. The assessments consistently reported that SNS was an effective technology in managing these voiding conditions in patients who did not respond to drug or behaviour therapy. They also reported that there was a substantial complication profile associated with SNS. Complication rates ranged from 33% to 50%. However, none of the assessments reported that they found any incidences of permanent injury or death associated with the device.
The health technology assessments for urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, and urinary retention included (RCTs (level 2) as their primary source of evidence for their conclusions. The assessment of fecal incontinence based its conclusions on evidence from case series (level 4). Because there was level 2 data available for the use of SNS in patients with urinary conditions, the Medical Advisory Secretariat chose to review thoroughly the RCTs included in the assessments and search for publications since the assessments were released. However, for the health technology assessment for fecal incontinence, which contained only level 4 evidence, the Medical Advisory Secretariat searched for studies on SNS and fecal incontinence that were published since that assessment was released.
Two RCTs were identified that compared SNS to no treatment in patients with refractory urge incontinence. Both RCTs reported significant improvements (> 50% improvement in voiding function) in the SNS group for number of incontinence episodes per day, number of pads used per day, and severity of incontinence episodes.
Urgency-Frequency (With or Without Chronic Pelvic Pain)
One RCT was identified that compared SNS to no treatment in patients with refractory urgency-frequency. The RCT reported significant improvements in urgency-frequency symptoms in the SNS group (average volume per void, detrusor pressure). In addition to the RCT, 1 retrospective review and 2 prospective case series were identified that measured pelvic pain associated with urgency-frequency in patients who underwent SNS. All 3 studies reported a significant decrease in pain at median follow-up.
One RCT was identified that compared SNS to no treatment in patients with refractory urinary retention. The RCT reported significant improvements in urinary retention in the SNS group compared to the control group for number of catheterizations required and number of voids per day. In addition to this RCT, 1 case series was also identified investigating SNS in women with urinary retention. This study also found that there were significant improvements in urinary retention after the women had received the SNS implants.
Three case series were identified that investigated the role of SNS in patients with fecal incontinence. All 3 reported significant improvements in fecal incontinence symptoms (number of incontinent episodes per week) after the patients received the SNS implants.
None of the studies identified followed patients until the point of battery failure. Of the 6 studies identified describing the long-term follow-up of patients with SNS, follow-up periods ranged from 1.5 years to over 5 years. None of the long-term follow-up studies included patients with fecal incontinence. All of the studies reported that most of the patients who had SNS had at least a 50% improvement in voiding function (range 58%–77%). These studies also reported the number of patients who had their device explanted in the follow-up period. The rates of explantation ranged from 12% to 21%.
Safety, Complications, and Quality of Life
A 33% surgical revision rate was reported in an analysis of the safety of 3 RCTs comparing SNS to no treatment in patients with urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, or urinary retention. The most commonly reported adverse effects were pain at the implant site and lead migration. Despite the high rate of surgical revision, there were no reports of permanent injury or death in any of the studies or health technology assessments identified. Additionally, patients consistently said that they would recommend the procedure to a friend or family member.
One health technology assessment and 1 abstract were found that investigated the costing factors pertinent to SNS. The authors of this assessment did their own “indicative analysis” and found that SNS was not more cost-effective than using incontinence supplies. However, the assessment did not account for quality of life. Conversely, the authors of the abstract found that SNS was more cost-effective than incontinence supplies alone; however, they noted that in the first year after SNS, it is much more expensive than only incontinence supplies. This is owing to the cost of the procedure, and the adjustments required to make the device most effective. They also noted the positive effects that SNS had on quality of life.
Conclusions and Implications
In summary, there is level 2 evidence to support the effectiveness of SNS to treat people with urge incontinence, urgency-frequency, or urinary retention. There is level 4 evidence to support the effectiveness of SNS to treat people with fecal incontinence.
To qualify for SNS, people must meet the following criteria:
- Be refractory to behaviour and/or drug therapy
- Have had a successful test stimulation before implantation; successful test stimulation is defined by a 50% or greater improvement in voiding function based on the results of a voiding diary. Test stimulation periods range from 3 to 7 days for patients with urinary dysfunctions, and from 2 to 3 weeks for patients with fecal incontinence.
- Be able to record voiding diary data, so that clinical results of the implantation can be evaluated.
Patients with stress incontinence, urinary retention due to obstruction and neurogenic conditions (such as diabetes with peripheral nerve involvement) are ineligible for sacral nerve stimulation.
Physicians will need to learn how to use the InterStim System for Urinary Control. Requirements for training include these:
- Physicians must be experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of lower urinary tract disorders and should be trained in the implantation and use of the InterStim System for Urinary Control.
- Training should include the following:
- Participation in a seminar or workshop that includes instructional and laboratory training on SNS. This seminar should include a review of the evidence on SNS with emphasis on techniques to prevent adverse events.
- Completion of proctoring by a physician experienced in SNS for the first 2 test stimulations and the first 2 implants