One out of every two women will develop a pelvic floor disorder at some point in their life. These disorders usually require physical therapy and often require surgery. So, why don’t we hear more about pelvic floor dysfunction?
The pelvic floor is a hammock-like group of muscles and ligaments that drape across the pelvis and support all of the pelvic organs. If these muscles and ligaments become damaged, then they cannot hold organs in the pelvis (resulting in prolapse) and cannot maintain sphincter control (resulting in incontinence). The most common cause of dysfunction of these muscles and ligaments is pregnancy and childbirth. During pregnancy, the weight of the gravid uterus plus changes in intra-abdominal pressure can stretch the components of the pelvic floor. During delivery, the levator ani muscle, pubococcygeus muscle, and pudendal nerve are all susceptible to stretch injury. In addition, more than half of vaginal deliveries result in vaginal lacerations which can involve the pelvic floor muscles and sphincters.
The frequency of these disorders is shockingly common. At one year after vaginal delivery, 41% of women experience stress urinary incontinence, 32% experience nocturia, 23% experience flatus incontinence, and 9% have some degree of prolapse. Age also affects the pelvic floor with loss of muscle and ligament integrity, particularly after menopause. The Women’s Health Initiative study found that 41% of older women with a uterus have some degree of prolapse.
So, why don’t we hear about it?
Pelvic floor dysfunction is a silent epidemic because all too often, women do not bring it up when seeing their doctor and their doctor does not ask the right questions.
Assumption of normal. Many women just assume that symptomatic pelvic floor dysfunction is just a normal and expected consequence of “everything getting stretched out” during labor and delivery. Because of this assumption of normal, women frequently do not discuss postpartum urinary incontinence, anal incontinence, or vaginal bulges with their doctor.
Patient embarrassment. Many women have a hard time bringing up issues regarding their urination or bowel movements, even with their physician. Some women don’t know enough about normal female pelvic anatomy to tell when their pelvic structures are not quite right.
Doctors do not ask the right questions. Obstetricians are generally good at asking about pelvic floor dysfunction symptoms but primary care physicians and other non-obstetricians frequently are not. Sometimes it is because the primary care physician just assumes that the obstetrician will take care of any problems resulting from pregnancy and sometimes it is because of lack of familiarity with the clinical manifestations of pelvic floor dysfunction. When asking women about pelvic floor dysfunction, we should remember the 3 “B’s”: Bladder, Bowel, and Bulge.
Pelvic floor dysfunction symptoms
The most common serious consequences of pelvic floor dysfunction are incontinence and prolapse. Types of urinary incontinence include stress urinary incontinence, urgency urinary incontinence, and mixed urinary incontinence. Bowel control issues include fecal incontinence, flatus incontinence, and fecal urgency.
Prolapse occurs when a pelvic organ herniates. A cystocele is when the bladder herniates into the anterior vaginal wall. A rectocele is when the rectum herniates into the posterior vaginal wall. And a uterovaginal prolapse is when the cervix and uterus descends into the lower vagina. Prolapse can result in urinary incontinence, constipation, pelvic discomfort, and pain during sexual intercourse.
What can be done about it?
Pelvic floor physical therapy. Fortunately, there are effective treatments that can significantly improve the quality of a woman’s life. This generally starts with pelvic floor physical therapy. This is performed by a specially-trained physical therapist who can teach women exercises to strengthen the pelvic muscles and help restore normal pelvic function. Most notably are Kegel exercises when the pelvic muscles are contracted and then relaxed.
A bit of history about Kegel exercises. If I was to then ask you who invented Kegel exercises, you might say American gynecologist Arnold Henry Kegel who published an article about exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor in the Annals of Western Medicine and Surgery in 1948. But that wouldn’t be exactly right. Instead, we have to go back 12 years earlier when a book was published by a professional dancer named Margaret Morris. She was born in 1891 and began her career as a child actress and ballet dancer. By age 19, she was an internationally known choreographer and theater producer. In her 30’s she opened a dance school and became interested in how movement and posture affected health. So, in 1925, she went to London’s St. Thomas Hospital to study physiotherapy. She further developed her ideas about exercises and health that culminated in her 1936 book titled “Maternity and Post-Operative Exercises”. In her book, she outlined 21 exercises for women to perform that could improve urinary incontinence and other consequences of childbirth. Her book was reviewed in JAMA in 1937 where the reviewer stated that he was: “..satisfied with the soundness of Miss Morris’s scheme and believe that their application will yield most beneficial results.” Dr. Kegel then wrote about her exercises more than a decade later and he now gets all of the credit for Margaret Morris’s pelvic floor exercises.
Other non-surgical treatments. When symptoms persist despite pelvic floor physical therapy, there are other treatment options. Diet and lifestyle measures to reduce urinary incontinence include weight loss, avoidance of excessively large fluid ingestions, and avoiding drinking fluids shortly before bedtime. Pessaries and over-the-counter vaginal inserts can also be useful. Measures to reduce fecal incontinence include dietary soluble fiber (but avoid insoluble fiber), ritualization of bowel movements, and over-the-counter loperamide. Avoidance of caffeine and avoidance of vigorous exercising after meals can also reduce fecal incontinence.
Surgical options. When these measures are ineffective, there are a variety of surgical options. There have been many recent developments in surgical procedures for pelvic floor dysfunction. For example, in the past, uterine prolapse was primarily treated with hysterectomy; however, now there are many uterine-sparing procedures that can be performed. Other new techniques include sacroneuromodulation for fecal incontinence and onobotulinum toxin for urinary urgency incontinence. This is where a urogynecologist can be an invaluable resource. Many larger medical centers have comprehensive subspecialty peripartum pelvic floor disorder clinics overseen by a urogynecologist. Physicians at smaller hospitals that cannot support a full subspecialty clinic should be familiar with regional pelvic floor disorder clinics for referral.
The bottom line: talk with your patients
Given the frequency of pelvic floor dysfunction, it is incumbent on every primary care physician to be familiar with the symptoms and to be willing to speak openly about them with patients. If your hospital has a labor and delivery unit, then it needs a pelvic floor physical therapist. As an emeritus faculty, I’ve been doing some pro bono teaching at the Ohio State University and recently guest-moderated an OSU MedNet webcast on pelvic floor disorders by Dr. Lisa Hickman. This webcast is a great resource for physicians, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and physician assistants who need to brush up on the diagnosis and management of pelvic floor dysfunction. You can view the webcast by clicking on this link.
September 20, 2023