The pelvic floor is a hot topic for pregnant women and women who have recently delivered but the fact is all women should understand and care about their pelvic floor. A dysfunctional pelvic floor can cause pain, discomfort, and embarrassment and can be either prevented or addressed and cured.
In the United States alone, nearly 4 million babies are born each year. Across the world, the majority of women will have children at some point in their lives. Pelvic floor dysfunction is so common that many women are left thinking that nothing can be done about it. This leaves many women suffering is silence even many years after they have had children. Although any woman may have some degree of pelvic floor dysfunction, women who have had children have higher instances of pelvic floor issues. Why is this?
To start out, we must understand what the pelvic floor is. It is a group of muscles that spans the width of the pelvis, stretching from the pubic bone to the tail bone, also attaching to the hip/sitting bones. This group of muscles provides support for organs such as, the bladder, uterus, and bowel. Functions directly impacted by these muscles are urinary control, continence, and sexual function. Interestingly, men have a pelvic floor too and can also encounter weaknesses.
A weakened pelvic floor experienced after childbirth or otherwise could mean that internal organs aren't being properly supported and may cause issues with the release of gas, feces, or urine. Everyone is able to contract the pelvic floor muscles on demand, much like bending your arm to pick something up, and therefore can be strengthened.
During pregnancy and delivery, the pelvic floor experiences more stress than typical, everyday demands. For one thing, it is supporting the weight of the growing baby and is therefore stretched and requires strength. Another factor that may determine the degree to which it has been affected is the shape and size of the individual woman carrying the baby. As we all can easily recognize, no two bodies are identical, so it comes as no surprise that circumstances of pelvic floor function depend on the shape and musculature of the individual woman, plus other, outside influencing factors.
Fitness professionals are constantly reminding pregnant women to do their kegels and practice overall strengthening exercises. This is mostly because we understand that the strength and flexibility of those muscles (including the surrounding connective tissue) directly impacts the return to normal function, as well as provides proper support during pregnancy.
Additionally, a woman carrying a heavier, larger baby will have more weight and stress placed upon those muscles throughout the entire pregnancy. Although gradual, that is a long period of time to hold a heavy weight. This, in itself, is a great incentive for pregnant women to exercise and make wise food choices during pregnancy. Dr. James Clapp illustrated in his book, Exercising Through Your Pregnancy, that women who exercise produce lighter, leaner babies.
Some other factors that influence postnatal pelvic function is the delivery process. Was the baby delivered vaginally or by c-section (women who have delivered via c-section can still have pelvic flood dysfunction)? Did the doctor use tools (such as forceps) to deliver the baby? Did any perineal tears happen? How long was the woman dilated and in labor?
As we can see, there are multiple influences that might contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction but this fact doesn't mean women have to suffer in silence. The important takeaway from all of this is, ALL WOMEN must know that there are professionals who have built their whole career around helping treat and cure this common issue. Pelvic health physiotherapists, some doctors, and fitness professionals are often great resources. Don't let anything stand in the way of you feeling great and strong!
Julia Broome is passionate about health and exercise but is most excited about educating women concerning the short and long term impact of exercise on pregnant women and their baby.