Pairing acupuncture with mild electric currents may help reduce a popular type of urinary incontinence in women, a Chinese study shows.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, involved 504 women with stress urinary incontinence (SUI). SUI is caused by weak pelvic muscles, which leads to urinary leakage when exercising, sneezing and coughing. Childbirth is one of the most common causes of weak pelvic muscles, but being overweight can exacerbate the problem.

Researchers performed what’s called electroacupuncture on one group of participants, which is when an electrical current is passed between acupuncture needles. The other group received a dummy treatment using similar needles. Treatments lasted six weeks.

The women who received the electroacupuncture treatment saw a greater decrease in urine leakage after six weeks compared to the participants who had received the dummy treatment.

At the start of the study, the women who received the electroacupuncture treatment leaked 18.4 grams of urine in one hour and had an average of 7.9 leakage episodes in 72 hours.

After the treatment, these same women saw a decrease in urine leakage of 9.9 grams and had one less episode of leakage in 72 hours compared to the other group.

The group that received the dummy treatment saw just a 2.6-gram reduction in leakage.

“The safety and effect of electroacupuncture for stress urinary incontinence were comparable to those of pelvic floor muscle training,” said senior study author Dr. Baoyan Liu. “Electroacupuncture was effective with rapid response, short treatment period and good compliance. Pelvic floor muscle training takes at least three months with less compliance.”

While promising, the treatment is not without side effects. About 1.6% of women in the electroacupuncture group experienced hematoma, fatigue or swelling of clotted blood in the tissue.

The authors do note that the researchers did not assess the amount of urine leaked after the treatment stopped. In other words, researchers are uncertain whether the results are permanent.

Another caveat: Researchers had no way of making sure patients were unaware of whether they received the dummy or electroacupuncture treatment. If participants did know which treatment they received, it may have influenced the reported results.

Still, experts say the results of the study suggest that electroacupuncture may be a reasonable option for women to try before opting for surgery. The treatments may also reduce a patient’s reliance on incontinence supplies, such as bed chucks and adult diapers.

In a separate clinical trial, researchers from China compared the results of the electroacupuncture treatment with drug treatment in a randomized clinical with 100 participants. The participants were separated into two groups: drug treatment and electroacupuncture.

Treatments were administered over three, ten-day sessions. The drug group was given a dose of midorine hydrochloride tablets, three times per day. The electroacupuncture group was given treatment with mid-level intensity electrostimulation.

The electroacupuncture group saw a 20% short-term complete recovery rate. Another 54% of patients saw significant improvements. The drug group saw a 10% short-term complete recovery rate. Another 24% of participants saw significant improvements.

While electroacupuncture may not cure SUI, it may be worth considering as part of an overall incontinence management plan.