Could a vibrating chair really stop embarrassing leaks (and help your love life)?
- Fiona Harris’s life was, like that of so many women, blighted by incontinence
- The office manager, from Lincoln, wore pads that needed changing eight times
- Her love life with husband Cliff, 57, virtually disappeared as a result of condition
- But just three hours in a chair that exercises the pelvic floor has changed her life
Fiona Harris’s life was, like that of so many women, blighted by incontinence.
At the age of 45, the office manager from Lincoln had such weak pelvic floor muscles she wore pads that needed changing at least eight times a day.
Not surprisingly, the problem affected her relationship with husband Cliff, 57, a business development manager — their love life virtually disappeared for nearly a year after her condition created an ‘invisible barrier down the middle of the bed’.
But after just three hours’ sitting on a chair that exercises the pelvic floor, all has returned to normal, and the couple have not long returned from a second honeymoon in the U.S.
‘The treatment’s changed my life,’ says Fiona.
It’s estimated that at least one in seven women suffers from urinary incontinence — often the result of stress or injury to the pelvic floor muscles during childbirth. In Fiona’s case, it was linked to fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects 800,000 people in the UK — and which can sometimes cause muscle problems.
She’d been diagnosed in 2007, after six months of utter exhaustion and flu-like symptoms. On her rheumatologist’s advice, she takes a range of treatments including anti-inflammatories as well as ginseng and turmeric.
‘On a good day I feel a bit achy and tender and on a bad day I can’t even get out of bed the pain and fatigue in the muscles are so bad,’ says Fiona. ‘In 2016 I had to give up my luxury dessert business because I was having so many flare-ups.’
She also developed other symptoms including temporary sight loss and chest pains that ‘felt like a heart attack’.
Then, during Christmas 2016, Fiona caught a bad cold — coughing suddenly triggered her bladder to give way. ‘I was in our bedroom at my in-laws when it happened — I was so embarrassed,’ she says.
When the incontinence continued, despite her cough clearing up, she went to her GP, who sent her for a scan.
It seemed that her fibromyalgia had weakened her pelvic floor, the layer of muscles that support and help control the bladder.
Her GP encouraged her to do Kegel exercises — repeatedly contracting then relaxing the pelvic muscles — to strengthen them, but Fiona couldn’t feel the muscles working, so struggled to do the exercises.
She was told she would have to live with the condition and it would probably get worse.
By now wearing incontinence pants 24 hours a day, she went from bubbly and outgoing, she says, to being terrified to leave the house. When she did go out, to friends and family who knew, ‘I’d put a towel on their furniture before I sat down. Everyone understood and was very kind but it was mortifying’.
But worse still was the effect it had on her relationship with Cliff.
‘I couldn’t bear for him to touch me in case he felt the ugly, heavy pants. I couldn’t imagine how he found me attractive,’ adds Fiona.
‘I pushed him away until he felt shut out.’ Then in August this year, she learned about the EMSella chair from a friend.
Introduced to the UK two years ago by Dr Tracey Sims, a GP in Wirral, it uses electromagnetic waves to trigger contraction of the muscles in the pelvic floor. An independent Spanish study found the treatment improved symptoms in 77 per cent of women for up to three months.
Dr Sims was drawn to the device because not only does she see women affected by incontinence daily in her NHS surgery, but she’s suffered herself for ten years.
‘Despite telling women they must do their pelvic floor exercises, teaching them how to do them, then doing them myself, after the birth of my second child my pelvic floor was so badly weakened I leaked when I ran, jumped on the trampoline with the kids or did aerobics,’ she says.
‘It was embarrassing. I was dubious that you could just sit on a chair, fully clothed, and be fixed, but when you look at the science behind it, it’s actually nothing new.
‘We’ve used the electromagnetic therapy that the chair harnesses to treat muscle weakness for years. For example, if an athlete breaks their leg and their muscles have wasted when they come out of their cast, physios stick electrodes onto the skin above the muscles.
‘These send electrical impulses to the muscles causing them to contract and strengthen so the athletes can get their fitness back faster.
‘It made sense that it could work on the pelvic muscles, too.’ A large magnetic coil in the chair’s base creates an electromagnetic field just above the seat. ‘When you sit on the chair, signals from the electromagnetic field induce an electric current in the tissue around the pelvic floor, causing it to contract — at a rate, say the makers, of 11,200 times in 28 minutes.
Dr Sims says the chair helped her and she now offers the treatment at her private clinic in Liverpool.
The women she treats are also shown how to do their Kegel exercises at home, to keep their pelvic floor strong long after the treatment finishes.
‘Like any muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it,’ says Dr Sims.
Fiona says the results have been life-changing. After just a ten-minute trial she was completely dry for a day.
She then began a £1,500 course of six half-hour sessions in September at Body Lipo in Lincoln. She had two sessions a week for three weeks.
‘You just sit there, fully clothed,’ she says. ‘It’s totally painless. All you feel is a slight pulsating in your internal muscles.
‘It took until treatment five before I had the confidence to stop wearing the incontinence pads and pants. Until then I just didn’t dare to believe it had actually worked.’
Dr Alex Bader, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Bader Medical Institute in London, who specialises in incontinence and pelvic floor problems, says that the chair treatment is an exciting option. ‘For a long time all we could do was tell women to do Kegel exercises and explain how to live with it.
‘Or, for the worst cases, we could offer a surgical procedure.’
But as Good Health has highlighted, the use of vaginal mesh to treat the problem has left some women in crippling pain.
More recently doctors have used lasers and thermal heat inside the vaginal canal to improve tissue and blood supply around the urethra (the tube which takes urine from the bladder out of the body), increasing the support around it to help with control.
‘The chair technology is not new for strengthening muscles but it is a very exciting development,’ says Dr Bader.
‘Even then we must recognise it will not be for everyone. It seems to be best suited to mild to moderate sufferers.’
Elaine Miller, a women’s health physiotherapist, adds: ‘I can see the chair being helpful to women who have absolutely no feeling of their pelvic floor at all. If it gets it moving again then it’s useful.
‘But for many women it’s not that severe and there’s no evidence to suggest anything is more effective than the Kegel exercises they could do themselves.
‘It seems a pricey quick fix for something many women can improve with the recommended “contract, hold for ten seconds, release and then ten quick contractions and releases”, three times a day.’
She also advises women having problems to see their GP first and ask for an internal assessment or scan.
‘Sometimes incontinence is not a case of the muscle being too weak but of it being in spasm. If that’s the issue you wouldn’t want this kind of treatment.’
Fiona, however, is delighted with her results. Just a few weeks after her first treatment, Cliff woke her and asked if she’d realised she’d cuddled him all night — something she hadn’t done for months.
She continues to do Kegel exercises and accepts that because of her fibromyalgia, she may need more treatments on the EMSella chair in future. But for now she is busy enjoying life. ‘I feel sexy again,’ she said. ‘I’ve got my life back.’