Tiny medical device gives patients a reason to smile

Reported by: Erik Avanier
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Updated: 1/14 7:18 pm
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) - Imagine living a life in shame because you can't control going to the bathroom let alone getting to one in time. That's a reality for millions of people who are afraid to be seen in public but Chattanooga resident Debby Lehigh is speaking up.

Debby Lehigh is one of nearly 18-million Americans who suffers from bowel incontinence which is an embarrassing and uncontrollable disorder that causes many people to avoid social setting for fear that they could have an accident at any time.

"Over the years I started having accidents like embarrassing accidents when I couldn't get to the bathroom quickly enough. I began to avoid social situations. I even ended up taking an early retirement at 55," Lehigh said.

Her problem began as a result of muscle and nerve loss. It started many years ago after she gave birth to her children. Lehigh sought the help of Colorectal surgeon Shauna Lorenzo-Riveo of University Surgical Associates. Rivero said this disorder has become common in many women after childbirth.

"When you think of your sphincter muscle as a circle and that muscle got torn at child birth, the scare tissue holds it together but as time goes on, that muscle starts to spread and then we're not squeezing," Rivero said.

In October, Rivero implanted a Medtronic Sacral Neuromodulator into Lehigh's lower back just under the skin. The device is smaller than pen but allows patients to have more control over going to the bathroom. It has an external hand-held remote control that allows patients to deliver mild electrical pulses that stimulates the nerves. Each device can be programmed to adjust to a patients needs. The implanted device also works on people who suffer from urinary incontinence.

"I don't have the fear now of social situations or being afraid that I'm going to be in Lowes and have this bad problem. It's been really amazing," Lehigh said.

Unfortunately, the Sacral Neuromodulator doesn't work for everyone. There are some patients who require more invasive treatments.

"The most invasive thing you could have is something called a stoma where we actually diver the flow of stool so it doesn't come out between the legs anymore. It comes out onto the abdomen and it's caught in a bag and that is what most people are fearful for," Dr. Rivero said

Patients who require frequent lower body MRI's are not good candidates for this device because it would have to be surgically removed every time the patients is scheduled for an MRI.

Other problems include uncomfortable stimulation such as a jolting or shocking feeling that some patience may experience.

Less invasive treatments for incontinence include: diet modification, Kegel exercises, and medication.

Medtronic Sacral Neuromodulation is recommended after patients have tried medication and dietary modifications that didn't work.

Incontinence is caused by a number of reasons which include: injury from childbirth, nerve and muscular damage by surgery or injury, stroke, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

As for Lehigh, she says she has better control of her problem and is now moving on with a new lease on life.

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