Health guidance encourages us to be on the lookout for irregular symptoms that could point to an issue with our well-being.
Women are told to conduct self-exams to watch for changes that could signal breast cancer. Ongoing fatigue might point to iron deficiency or a lack of vitamin D.
What about issues like leaking urine, or a feeling of heaviness in your vagina? These signals are also an alert—and in these examples, the most likely cause is a weak pelvic floor.
What are the most common conditions caused by a weak pelvic floor? Let’s take a look at this common impact on women.
What is the Pelvic Floor?
Understanding the pelvic floor and its importance is the first step to understanding what can go wrong.
The pelvic floor is a group of muscles and tissues that act a bit like a hammock, supporting and protecting the pelvic organs such as your bladder, bowel or large intestine, and internal reproductive organs such as your vagina. They also assist with essential bodily functions, like pooping, peeing and having sex.1
That’s why the pelvic floor is so important, and why a number of conditions can arise when things go wrong.
What Can Go Wrong With the Pelvic Floor?
While it is true that some women have pelvic floor muscles that are too tight—known as high tone pelvic floor dysfunction—it’s far more common to suffer from weakened pelvic floor muscles.
Here are the main causes of a weakened pelvic floor:2
- Pregnancy and childbirth: particularly vaginal deliveries.
- Menopause: reduced estrogen can weaken muscles.
- Straining on the toilet: such as that caused by constant constipation.
- Ongoing cough: like that caused by asthma, bronchitis or a smoker’s cough.
- Previous pelvic surgery: such as hysterectomy.
- Heavy lifting: which can increase stress on the pelvic floor.
- High impact exercise: like those involving jumping.
- Age: a natural process that weakens muscles.
- Being overweight: may place greater stress on the pelvic floor.
Whatever the cause, weakened pelvic floor muscles can lead to a number of health conditions.
What Are The Most Common Conditions Caused By A Weak Pelvic Floor?
Also known as pelvic floor disorders, the most common conditions caused by weak pelvic floor muscles are urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse.3
1. Urinary Incontinence
There are different kinds of urinary incontinence, which is when you accidentally leak urine:
- Stress urinary incontinence is when you laugh, cough, sneeze, lift something, or even just stand up or bend over. Physical activity puts strain on the bladder, and the muscles supporting the bladder and urethra are too weak to hold the urine in.4
- Urge incontinence or overactive bladder: is when you feel a frequent need to urinate, need to rush to the bathroom or are unable to hold it. It happens when the bladder contracts too frequently or at random.4
2. Fecal Incontinence
Similar to urinary incontinence, this is when you struggle to control your bowel movements. Fecal incontinence is “the involuntary loss of rectal contents (feces, gas)…and the inability to postpone an evacuation.”5 It can also take two forms, from that sudden urge to poop but you can’t reach the toilet; or leaking feces without knowing.
3. Pelvic Organ Prolapse
This happens when your pelvic organs drop from their regular position because the pelvic muscles can no longer support them. It can happen to your uterus, rectum, bladder, bowel or vagina.1
A weakened pelvic floor can also cause pain, such as back pain, pelvic pain, or pain during sex, particularly during orgasm as the pelvic floor muscles contract forcefully.4
What Can I Do About a Weak Pelvic Floor?
There’s hope, and the first line of treatment does not have to be surgery! The best start is by performing pelvic floor exercises. Also called “Kegels,” these exercises have been proven through research to keep pelvic floor muscles “fit” and prevent weakening, but also as an effective treatment for women suffering with conditions like stress urinary incontinence.
A strong pelvic floor can help with prolapse, and even with overactive bladder, providing a reflex “quieting” of the bladder’s contractions, reducing urgency and allowing more control.4
Women can get help performing these exercises from a pelvic floor physical therapist or occupational therapist, who will make sure they are being performed properly. There are also tools like the INNOVO Urinary Incontinence Kit, which helps you perform Kegel exercises properly, in short 30-minute sessions.
Talk To Your Doctor
If you’re noticing signs that could be a pelvic floor disorder caused by weakened pelvic floor muscles, use our Physician Finder to find a doctor near you with expertise in women’s health. Your treatment plan may include exercises to strengthen those muscles and improve your overall pelvic health.