Naturally Preventing and Treating Urinary Tract Infections
Over half of women have experienced the symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI) - the urgent need to go to the bathroom, burning pain during and after a void, pain located in the pelvis, abdomen, or bladder, and cloudy or smelly urine. Bladder infections occur when bacteria make their way up through the urethra and into the bladder. They are eight times more likely in women, because the urethra in men is almost five times longer than in women, making it more difficult for the bacteria to traverse the entire length to colonize the bladder.
Risk factors for frequent or recurring UTIs include sexual activity, pelvic organ prolapse, voiding dysfunction (more on that later!) and any condition that compromises the immune system. Post-menopausal women are at higher risk, because the changing hormones also change the vaginal pH and reduce the good bacterial flora that naturally exists in the vagina. More than 90% of UTIs are caused by e. Coli.
Recurring UTIs are defined as two or more UTIs within a 6 month period, or 3 UTIs within a year. Often these are re-infections, where the original infection is not completely eliminated and eventually returns. Standard treatment is with systemic antibiotics, but it is possible to address the underlying issues and treat and prevent UTIs without medication.
Physical Therapy for Recurrent UTIs
There’s typically a pelvic floor component to recurrent UTIs. The muscles of the pelvic floor are responsible for controlling the flow of urine. They remain locked on throughout the day, keeping us continent, and have to be consciously relaxed when it’s time to go. If these muscles are tight or overstrained, it can be difficult for them to disengage enough to go to the bathroom properly.
Many patients with recurrent UTIs notice they have difficult in starting a stream, stops and starts in their urine stream, or feel like they can’t fully empty the bladder. In these cases, residual urine is often trapped in the bladder.
You can imagine this like a slow-draining sink. When working properly, the bladder system quickly and efficiently flushes out all the waste in the bladder. However, if it’s not emptying fully or correctly, it can leave that sediment behind. In the sink this leads to gunk building up; in the bladder, it can lead to recurring urinary tract infections.
Manual physical therapy that helps to relax these muscles opens that sink back up, making sure it’s able to flush all of the urine and bacteria from the bladder.
Urinary tract infections also put a high strain upon the pelvic floor muscles. They may react to the inflammatory response happening at the bladder. They’re also having to squeeze and clench as you fight the urge to go until you find a bathroom. They’re supposed to be controlling a urine stream 4-6 times per day - with a UTI, their workload can easily double or triple for an entire week. For many of our patients, pelvic floor dysfunction begins with a urinary tract infection. But when the bacteria are eliminated, the symptoms remain.
The muscles and nerves of the pelvic floor can cause all of the symptoms of a UTI - urinary urgency/frequency, burning pain with urination, chronic pelvic pain, and pain that feels like it’s coming from the bladder or in the lower abdomen. The infection can cause or exacerbate pelvic floor dysfunction that persists after the infection has been resolved. Often patients are diagnosed with ‘phantom’ UTIs, where the symptoms are present but there is no bacteria detected. In many cases, this leads to round after round of unsuccessful treatment with antibiotics. Since there is no infection to cure, this can just cause significant side effects - killing off the good flora of the gut and vaginal tissue, causing constipation or diarrhea, or amplifying pain.
Patients can spend six months or more in this medical purgatory of taking antibiotics for infections that don’t exist, ‘just to be safe.’ Instead they can be finding and treating the underlying cause - the over-tight muscles of the pelvic floor.
D-Mannose for UTIs
Fortunately, there’s a highly effective natural supplement that can treat current UTIs and prevent future ones. D-Mannose is a type of sugar found in many fruits and vegetables, including cranberries, apples, oranges, and broccoli. D-Mannnose has a unique property in the body - it binds itself to e. Coli. As the body processes D-Mannose, it goes through the kidneys and into the bladder for elimination, where it attaches to any e. Coli bacteria in the system. Instead of latching onto the bladder wall or the urethra, the bacteria are bound by the sugar and then flushed from the system.
In studies, 2 grams of D-Mannose daily was actually more effective than antibiotic treatment in preventing UTIs, with only 15% of women with recurring UTIs getting another one after starting in the supplement (as compared to 60% who didn’t take anything). It’s also used to treat a current UTI infection. At 3 grams a day for an acute infection, D-Mannose successfully resolved symptoms for 43 out of 45 women.
D-Mannose isn’t effective against UTIs that aren’t caused by e. Coli, but fortunately nearly 90% of infections are due to this bacteria. If you have a urine culture that shows that the majority of your infections are caused by a different bacteria, D-Mannose won’t be effective in preventing those. As always, check with your doctor before starting a new supplement.
There are a few other things that may help patients deal with UTI symptoms. An over-the-counter medication, Azo, is an analgesic for the bladder and urethra. It may reduce pain and discomfort while urinating, but should not be taken for extended periods of time, as it thickens the urine and can strain the kidneys (it also turns your urine a bright orange or blue color).
Urinating both before and after sexual activity can flush the urethra and reduce the risk of bacteria reaching the bladder. If possible, you can also shower before sexual activity and ask your partner to shower as well.
If you've been through multiple rounds of antibiotics (as many patients with UTIs have), you may also want to look into a probiotic to help restore the natural flora of your gut. We recommend one by Thorne to our patients you can find here.
There’s a lot more we can do for recurring urinary tract infections beyond throwing antibiotics at them. There’s often an underlying pelvic floor dysfunction that is the root cause that needs to be addressed in order to prevent these from being a life-long issue. Symptoms can be coming from the infection itself, from the tight pelvic floor muscles, or - most likely - a combination of the two. Naturally supplementing with D-Mannose can flush the e. Coli from the urinary symptom, and a healthy diet can boost your immune system to fight any remaining bacteria.
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Dr. Nicole Cozean is the founder of PelvicSanity physical therapy, Orange County's premier pelvic floor physical therapy clinic. One of only 270 PTs to be board-certified in the pelvic floor, and the first PT to serve on the ICA Board of Directors, Nicole is the author of the acclaimed and best-selling book The Interstitial Cystitis Solution (2016). She is an adjunct professor at her alma mater, Chapman University. The PelvicSanity blog focuses on presenting practical, positive information to help patients beyond the walls of Nicole's clinic.
Dr. Sharon Thompson is a physical therapist at PelvicSanity physical therapy, Orange County's premier pelvic floor physical therapy clinic. Sharon combines a strong orthopedic background with her skill as a pelvic floor physical therapist. She is vocal advocate for those who suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction or pain, and is especially passionate about spreading hope and awareness about these conditions.