TRENTON, N.J. -- Like millions of Americans, Mari Lynn quietly suffered for years from stress incontinence.
Whenever she laughed, coughed, climbed stairs or exercised, her bladder was likely to leak. So the 53-year-old Titusville, Fla., administrative aide was ''very skeptical'' that sitting in a chair with a magnetic field could help.
But after 16 painless, 22-minute treatments on the chair, called the NeoControl Pelvic Floor Therapy System, she said her problem has decreased greatly. She no longer wears panty liners constantly, and she's exercising daily.
''No longer is my life ruled by ... where's the closest bathroom,'' said Mari Lynn, who spoke on condition that her surname is withheld.
The chair, approved for stress incontinence treatment in 1999, has been used by nearly 5,000 U.S. patients and almost as many elsewhere. More U.S. urology centers are starting to offer the treatment.
''I think this is a really good option,'' said Dr. Patricia E. Gilhooly, an assistant urology professor at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. ''It's a very noninvasive treatment. That's what makes it appealing.''
Of 20 patients who completed the treatment at her clinic, Gilhooly says only a man who had prostate surgery did not improve significantly. One woman was completely cured.
One new patient, Patricia Juliano, 41, of Union, said that after her fourth treatment, her pelvic muscles felt tighter. Juliano, who has had urge incontinence for 20 years, has nine treatments left and hopes they will help ''get back my life.''
An estimated 20 million Americans, 85 percent of them women, have urinary incontinence: stress incontinence, which is common after childbirth; urge incontinence, in which patients ''need'' to urinate as often as every 30 minutes, or mixed incontinence, both problems combined.
Many don't seek help for years due to embarrassment or the false belief it's an incurable, normal part of aging, urologists say. Mean-while, incontinence sends many senior citizens into nursing homes.
Medications, caffeine-free diets, surgery and special ''Kegel'' contraction-and-release exercises to strengthen pelvic muscles help many patients. But some don't want surgery, and others don't do Kegel exercises consistently or can't do them because their muscles are too weak, so urologists say more options are needed.
The ordinary-looking NeoCon-trol chair, designed by engineers and doctors, is made by Neotonus Inc. of Atlanta. It uses a new technology called Extracorporeal Magnetic Innervation.
Patients sit on the chair, fully clothed, and read or listen to music. Meanwhile, magnets underneath create powerful pulsing magnetic fields that stimulate pelvic nerves, in turn exercising muscles that control bladder function and increasing circulation.
''What is not known about this therapy is its durability,'' Gilhooly said.
One study funded by Neotonus followed 50 patients for three months after treatment. Their average number of daily ''leak episodes'' dropped from 3.3 to 1.7. One-third were completely dry; another third had some improvement.
''I think the Neotonus chair has great potential to rid a number of patients of their urinary leakage, and improve continence in the vast majority of people who use it,'' said Dr. Lindsey Kerr, spokeswoman for the National Associa-tion for Continence and director of the Vermont Continence Center in Colchester.
Gilhooly said the treatment has no side effects, but ''it's not for everybody.''
It is not recommended for children, pregnant women and anyone with a pacemaker or artificial hip, and some patients require surgery.
''This is not a panacea,'' said Dr. Craig A. Hawkin, a urologist at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine. Some patients with severe problems aren't helped, but Hawkin said the chair has great potential for people with mild to moderate stress or urge incontinence.
Dr. Gary Leach, director of the Tower Urology Institute for Continence at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said the best results are in patients who continue doing Kegel exercises and follow other doctors' instructions afterward.
Doctors and patients alike note one problem: Insurers don't pay for the treatments. The doctors say they are charging enough to break even -- $30 to $35 per treatment -- in hopes Medicare and private insurers will begin covering treatments once studies show long-term effectiveness.
Neotonus now is running studies using the chair to treat other conditions, including enlarged prostate, interstitial cystitis and fecal incontinence.
On the Net:
National Association for Continence: http://www.nafc.org
American Urological Association: http://www.auanet.org
Neotonus site: http://www.neotonus.com/urology--gynecology
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