How is the pelvic exam for urinary incontinence performed?

Updated: Jan 22, 2021
  • Author: Sandip P Vasavada, MD; Chief Editor: Edward David Kim, MD, FACS  more...
  • Print

The pelvic floor examination is an integral part of the incontinence evaluation. In female patients, in particular, incontinence disorders often coexist with pelvic floor relaxation. If a surgical approach to the incontinence is chosen, other pelvic floor defects of significance can be treated simultaneously.

The examination begins with inspection of the external genitalia and urethral meatus. Evidence of atrophy, such as pallor and thinness of tissue, may indicate estrogen deficiency. A red, fleshy lesion of the posterior urethra, a caruncle, may be another indicator of urogenital hypoestrogenism. The suburethral area should be inspected and palpated. A suburethral mass should raise suspicion for a urethral diverticulum.

Other signs of a diverticulum might include tenderness and purulent or watery discharge upon compression. Urethral and trigonal tenderness also may indicate urethritis, urethral syndrome, or interstitial cystitis. The vaginal mucosa should be inspected for pallor, thinning, loss of rugae, and other signs of hypoestrogenism. If clinically suspected, a fistula opening may be discovered during vaginal examination. At times, pooling of fluid, exudate, or granulation tissue may indicate a nearby fistula tract.

A detailed pelvic floor examination should be performed for signs of pelvic organ prolapse. A systematic examination is conducted for cystocele, rectocele, uterine or vaginal prolapse, enterocele, and perineal laxity. A bivalve speculum should be used to visualize the cervix or vaginal apex. With the patient straining maximally, the speculum is withdrawn slowly, and any descent of the cervix or vaginal cuff is noted.

The speculum is then disarticulated, and a single blade examination is performed, inspecting the anterior vaginal wall during straining with the posterior wall retracted. If a cystocele is observed, then a ring forceps or similar instrument is inserted over the speculum blade and opened to support the lateral vagina. The tips of the ring forceps should be against the bilateral ischial spines. If the cystocele is present with the patient straining and the lateral vagina supported, then a midline defect exists either in isolation or with a paravaginal defect.

Another clue to a midline defect is the loss of rugae with straining. If the cystocele is no longer present with lateral support, then a pure paravaginal defect is present.

Another clue to paravaginal defects is collapsing side walls during bivalve speculum examination. If anterior wall prolapse is present with lateral support, then the next maneuver is to use the closed ring forceps to provide midline anterior vaginal support while the patient is straining again. If some cystocele is still noted, then a combined central and paravaginal cystocele is present. If no bulge is noted, then the defect is purely central.

Next, attention is turned to the posterior vaginal wall. The half speculum is used to retract the anterior wall of the vagina, while the posterior wall is examined during Valsalva maneuver. The presence or absence of a rectocele should be noted. If a double bump is observed when the patient strains, an enterocele may be present in addition to the rectocele.

Next, the perineal body is inspected. The height and thickness of the tissue is noted. A badly compromised perineal body may be short and consist of mostly skin with little or no underlying muscle. The levator muscles are palpated, and the resting tone is noted. Then, the patient is instructed to squeeze the examining fingers, and the levator strength can be appreciated. A rectovaginal examination is performed to determine the thickness of the rectovaginal septum.

The patient then is asked to strain. Tissue felt sliding through the examining fingers may indicate an enterocele. Resting and squeezing rectal sphincter tone is noted. As the rectal finger is withdrawn, the external anal sphincter should be palpated between this finger and the thumb. The absence or attenuation of this body of muscle indicates a sphincter laceration.

If any doubt remains about pelvic organ prolapse, examine the patient in the standing position. Instruct the patient to stand with legs apart and one foot resting on a step stool. When the patient performs the Valsalva maneuver, the force of gravity helps the pelvic organs (eg, uterus, bladder) slide down the vagina and helps enhance diagnostic capability.

In the male patient, levator ani muscle tone and strength can be tested during a rectal examination. The prostate should be palpated for tenderness, enlargement, and nodularity.

Did this answer your question?
Additional feedback? (Optional)
Thank you for your feedback!