The joy of having children may offset the feelings brought on by changes that happen to your body after childbirth.
A post-baby body may include episiotomy stitches, stretchmarks, and of course the impact of less sleep. Pelvic floor dysfunction may also happen to women after having a baby, but that link isn’t clear.
And if you’re wondering if you can get pelvic floor dysfunction even if you never gave birth, the answer is yes. Let’s explore what this means and the risk factors for pelvic floor disorders.
Understanding Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
Pelvic floor dysfunction is a broad term that covers a number of health issues. The basic definition is that you’re suffering from an impaired ability to relax and coordinate the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles.1 Pelvic floor muscles stabilize your core and act like a hammock to hold your pelvic organs in place. They also assist the body to perform essential functions like pooping, peeing and having sex.2
When these muscles weaken, pelvic floor dysfunction can cause common conditions like incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse.2 Weakness can happen due to childbirth, but even that connection isn’t clear.3
One study showed that among first-time mothers, the mode of delivery of their child was a factor. Results suggested that delivery by cesarean section presented a lower risk compared to vaginal delivery.4
Other studies have shown that the risk increases with the number of children a woman has delivered, or when forceps or a vacuum device is used during delivery.3
But pelvic problems also affect women who have never been pregnant. So the relationship among pregnancy, childbirth, and pelvic floor dysfunction isn’t completely clear.3 And delivering via cesarean section only reduces but does not eliminate the risk of pelvic floor problems.3
The American Urogynecologic Society reports that among women 20 years or older, 25% suffer with pelvic floor dysfunction.5
Other Risk Factors for Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
Your pelvic floor muscles weaken over time, as part of the normal aging process.2 There are other risk factors that can lead to pelvic floor conditions, including those that damage the muscles.
1. Putting pressure on the pelvic floor
Here are some examples of factors that put pressure on the pelvic floor and can cause issues:
- Being overweight or obese.3 Researchers in one study concluded that “the prevention and treatment of obesity is an important component” in preventing pelvic floor disorders.6
- Suffering from chronic constipation.3
- Smoking, which may increase the risk of developing prolapse and incontinence; smoking is generally not good for bladder health and can damage connective tissue in your body.5
- Constant straining to have a bowel movement.3
- Heavy lifting.3
- Chronic coughing from smoking or health problems.3
2. Getting older
The pelvic floor muscles can weaken as women age and during and after menopause.3
Some women are born with weaker tissues, and genetics can have an impact on the strength of your bones, muscles, and connective tissues. If you’re born with conditions that affect the strength of your connective tissues, you may be more likely to have pelvic organ prolapse.3
Surgery such as a hysterectomy, or surgery to correct prolapse, are associated with higher risk of a pelvic floor dysfunction.3
5. Race or Ethnicity
Some studies show a higher risk for some forms of pelvic floor issues among certain groups of women:
- Caucasian women are more likely to develop prolapse and to have urine leakage related to coughing, sneezing and activities.5
- African American women are more likely to have urinary leakage related to urgency.5
- Mexican American women are more likely to struggle with urinary incontinence than other Hispanic/Latino women.5
6. Health conditions
Besides injuries, other health conditions that affect the nerves can weaken the pelvic floor muscles. Examples include diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, back surgery and spinal stenosis.5
That’s not to say these factors immediately lead to pelvic issues. There are different causes and impacts when your pelvic floor weakens, and research continues into reasons and treatments.5
Seek Medical Attention
If you suspect issues with your pelvic floor, seek medical attention. Use our Physician Finder to find a doctor near you with expertise in women’s health, who can help with advice and treatment for pelvic floor conditions.