What Every Woman Should Know About Pelvic Floor Health
Think of four women you know. Feel free to include yourself!
Now hear this:
Chances are, one of these women lives with some sort of dysfunction of their pelvic floor, based on statistics cited by the National Institutes of Health. [https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/roughly-one-quarter-us-women-affected-pelvic-floor-disorders]
If you’re surprised to hear how common pelvic floor dysfunction is, we don’t blame you. After all, it’s not as if pelvic floor problems are something women tend to go around talking about with their friends. And while nobody should ever have to feel embarrassed about their health, the signs and symptoms associated with pelvic floor dysfunction can certainly cause emotional as well as physical distress.
What is the pelvic floor, why are pelvic floor problems so common; how can you tell when something’s amiss, and what can be done to restore and improve your pelvic floor health overall? The physical therapy team from District Performance & Physio in Washington DC is here to weigh in on what we believe every woman should know about pelvic floor health.
First things first: Pelvic Floor Anatomy 101.
The pelvic floor muscles are found at the bottom of your abdominal cavity inside your pelvis. They attach to the front (pubic bone), back (coccyx or tailbone), and sides of your pelvis and act like a sling or hammock to help hold up the pelvic organs, which includes the bladder bowel, uterus, cervix, and vagina. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472875/]
Your pelvic floor muscles are considered part of your “core,” which also includes your superficial and deep abdominal muscles, your lower back muscles, and your diaphragm. These muscles all work together to create stability for your spine and help maintain proper pressure inside the abdomen. [https://evidenceinmotion.com/under-pressure/]
When the pelvic floor muscles aren’t functioning properly; when they become weak, stretched out, too tense, or otherwise injured—a variety of issues can develop. Collectively known as pelvic floor disorders (PFDs), these issues include bladder and bowel problems as well as pelvic organ prolapse; which happens when the pelvic organs begin to droop or press against the vagina because the pelvic floor muscles can no longer properly hold them in place.
Pelvic floor dysfunction has many possible causes.
As you might imagine, pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of pelvic floor dysfunction since a growing baby bump, and labor and delivery can cause the pelvic floor to stretch out and become weaker. [https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/pelvicfloor/conditioninfo/causes]
Other possible causes of pelvic floor dysfunction include:
- Advancing age
- Chronic constipation and frequent straining during bowel movements
- Chronic coughing, which we see in people who smoke or have certain lung diseases
- Frequent heavy lifting (especially if done with less-than-ideal posture and breathing patterns)
- Certain health conditions, including endometriosis and menopause
- Infections, injuries, and/or surgeries in the pelvic area
Signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction can vary from woman to woman.
You can’t see your pelvic floor, which can make it easy to overlook a problem with these important muscles. But there are various signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction to look out for, including:
- Accidental urine leakage (stress incontinence), especially while sneezing, coughing, laughing, jumping, or lifting something
- Urinary urgency (feeling like you need to go a lot or not being able to make it to the bathroom on time)
- Incomplete emptying of the bladder (feeling like you aren’t able to fully empty your bladder when you do go)
- Pain while urinating (dysuria)
- Difficulty controlling your gas or stool
- Recurrent urinary tract infections
- A sensation of heaviness, bulging, and/or pressure in the vagina or rectum (in the case of pelvic organ prolapse, some women may actually feel or see something bulging out of their vagina)
- Pain in the lower back, pelvis, rectum, and/or genitals that isn’t easily explained by some other health condition
- Pain during sex (dyspareunia)
These symptoms will vary in type, severity, frequency, and duration for each woman. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/pelvicfloor/conditioninfo/symptoms
By the way, men can struggle with pelvic floor dysfunction, too. For example, erectile dysfunction and an interrupted stream while urinating can be signs of pelvic floor dysfunction in men.
Pelvic floor dysfunction IS treatable.
There’s no doubt about it—there are things you can do to improve and protect your pelvic floor health! This includes lifestyle strategies you can adopt on your own, as well as professional treatments provided by licensed healthcare providers who specialize in women’s health and pelvic floor conditions.
If you’re worried about your pelvic floor health, here are some things that may help https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/pelvicfloor/conditioninfo/treatment]:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a high-fiber diet, which will promote regular bowel movements and reduce the need to strain
- Consider avoiding beverages and foods that tend to stimulate the bladder, including carbonated, caffeinated, and/or alcoholic drinks, as well as citrus fruits and foods containing artificial sweeteners
- Try pelvic floor muscle training from a pelvic floor physical therapist; this can include Kegel exercises, core strengthening exercises, and other techniques and tools to help you relax, strengthen, and/or improve the coordination of your pelvic floor muscles
- Learn proper lifting and breathing techniques to avoid putting excess strain on your pelvic floor (a physical therapist can also help with this)
- Get regular body work, such as massage, which can help ease physical and mental tension throughout the body
In advanced cases, some women benefit from medications and/or surgery to correct their pelvic floor dysfunction or find relief from their symptoms.
Your best bet? Talk to a doctor about your concerns—and don’t hesitate to do so, either. The sooner you seek out professional help the sooner you can start healing.