The pathophysiology of stress urinary incontinence: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Kobra Falah-Hassani, Joanna Reeves, Rahman Shiri, Duane Hickling, Linda McLean

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Introduction and hypothesis To evaluate the evidence for pathologies underlying stress urinary incontinence (SUI) in women. Methods For the data sources, a structured search of the peer-reviewed literature (English language; 1960–April 2020) was conducted using predefined key terms in PubMed and Embase. Google Scholar was also searched. Peer-reviewed manuscripts that reported on anatomical, physiological or functional differences between females with signs and/or symptoms consistent with SUI and a concurrently recruited control group of continent females without any substantive urogynecological symptoms. Of 4629 publications screened, 84 met the inclusion criteria and were retained, among which 24 were included in meta-analyses. Results Selection bias was moderate to high; < 25% of studies controlled for major confounding variables for SUI (e.g., age, BMI and parity). There was a lack of standardization of methods among studies, and several measurement issues were identified. Results were synthesized qualitatively, and, where possible, random-effects meta-analyses were conducted. Deficits in urethral and bladder neck structure and support, neuromuscular and mechanical function of the striated urethral sphincter (SUS) and levator ani muscles all appear to be associated with SUI. Meta-analyses showed that observed bladder neck dilation and lower functional urethral length, bladder neck support and maximum urethral closure pressures are strong characteristic signs of SUI. Conclusion The pathology of SUI is multifactorial, with strong evidence pointing to bladder neck and urethral incompetence. While there is also evidence of impaired urethral support and levator ani function, standardized approaches to measurement are needed to generate higher levels of evidence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)501-552
Number of pages52
JournalInternational Urogynecology Journal
Issue number3
Early online date8 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021


  • stress urinaryincontinence
  • females
  • ultrasound
  • magnetic resonanceimaging
  • electromyography
  • dynamometry


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