Pelvic Floor: What is It, and Why It Matters

It is vital to keep your pelvic floor muscles strong. They help you to control your bladder and bowel. They also help sexual function.

The pelvic floor muscles are located between your legs and run from your pubic bone at the front, to the base of your spine at the back. They are shaped like a sling and hold your pelvic organs (uterus, vagina, bowel and bladder) in place.

You can feel your pelvic floor muscles if you try to stop the flow of urine when you go to the toilet.

Why are these muscles so important? What kind of impact do they have on women’s health? Keep reading to find out the answers to these questions – and more subtle issues of women’s health.

Finding your pelvic floor

The floor of the pelvis is made up of layers of muscle and other tissues. These layers stretch like a hammock from the tailbone at the back, to the pubic bone in front.

Pelvic floor muscles are the layer of muscles that support the pelvic organs and span the bottom of the pelvis. The pelvic organs are the bladder and bowel in men, and bladder, bowel and uterus in women.

A woman’s pelvic floor muscles support her bladder, womb (uterus) and bowel (colon). The urine tube (front passage), the vagina and the back passage all pass through the pelvic floor muscles.

Your pelvic floor muscles help you to control your bladder and bowel. They also help sexual function. It is vital to keep your pelvic floor muscles strong.

The first thing to do is to find out which muscles you need to train.

Sit or lie down with the muscles of your thighs, buttocks and stomach relaxed.
Squeeze the ring of muscle around the back passage as if you are trying to stop passing wind. Now relax this muscle. Squeeze and let go a couple of times until you are sure you have found the right muscles. Try not to squeeze your buttocks.

When sitting on the toilet to empty your bladder, try to stop the stream of urine, then start it again. Do this to learn which muscles are the right ones to use – but only once a week. Your bladder may not empty the way it should if you stop and start your stream more often than that.

If you don’t feel a distinct “squeeze and lift” of your pelvic floor muscles, or if you can’t slow your stream of urine as talked about in Point 3, ask for help from your doctor, physiotherapist, or continence nurse. They will help you to get your pelvic floor muscles working right. Women with very weak pelvic floor muscles can benefit from pelvic floor muscle training.

Why these muscles are important

Pelvic floor muscles provide support to the organs that lie on it. The sphincters give us conscious control over the bladder and bowel so that we can control the release of urine, feces (poo) and flatus (wind) and allow us to delay emptying until it is convenient.

When the pelvic floor muscles are contracted, the internal organs are lifted and the sphincters tighten the openings of the vagina, anus, and urethra. Relaxing the pelvic floor allows the passage of urine and feces.

Pelvic floor muscles are also important for sexual function in both men and women. In men, it is important for erectile function and ejaculation. In women, voluntary contractions (squeezing) of the pelvic floor contribute to sexual sensation and arousal.

The pelvic floor muscles in women also provide support for the baby during pregnancy and assist in the birthing process.

The muscles of the pelvic floor work with the abdominal and back muscles to stabilize and support the spine.

What makes them weaker

Common causes that weaken the pelvic floor are associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and obesity which put excessive pressure on the muscles.

Other cases stem from diastasis recti, prostate cancer treatment, straining of chronic constipation and even constant coughing. In some cases, lifestyle changes can prevent a weak pelvic floor. But, if symptoms have already occurred it is at least possible, in some cases, to prevent surgery with exercise and proper alignment.

Women's sex hormones naturally start to decline as they age, even prior to menopause. And these hormones—which include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)—maintain the health and integrity of the vaginal lining and surrounding muscles.

As our hormone levels naturally decline we can experience vaginal dryness, thinning of the lining, irritations, discharge, and discomfort; many women also experience pain during intercourse. And pelvic floor muscle loss also occurs, bringing with it issues like urinary leakage and prolapse.

But don't worry, just like we can exercise to get rid of the flab on our arms—or to strengthen other parts of our body—we can exercise and take care of our lady parts, too.

Preventing the problem

It's worth mentioning that all women over the age of 30 should be protective of their pelvic floor muscles! The key is prevention, so you don't end up with incontinence issues or pelvic prolapse problems (this is when your uterus, rectum, urethra, or bladder starts to collapse into your vagina).

Pregnancies, improperly done exercises (from squats or Pilates, for instance) as well as living a sedentary life (we all do too much sitting!) all affect our pelvic floor muscles.

Having healthy pelvic floor muscles is vital for women to live a pain-free and healthy life—regardless of their sexual activity. That is to say, who wants embarrassing leakage? Even more, who wants to experience pelvic prolapse issues that cause pain and may even require surgery?

Simply finding out what information, local specialists, contraptions and solutions there are out there may make you feel more empowered… and even perhaps more happy to talk and share your experiences. You are not alone.

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