Women’s pelvic health issues are receiving more attention than in the past.
That’s a good thing, since pelvic health has not ranked high in the world of health care. There are a number of reasons pelvic concerns are often ignored, but thanks to increasing awareness about the importance, pelvic health is getting its due.
Here’s why we care about pelvic health.
Your Pelvic Floor
The structure of muscles and ligaments that make up what we call a woman’s pelvic floor are a vital part of our bodies. The pelvic floor muscles span the bottom of our pelvis and support our pelvic organs—the bladder, bowel, uterus and intestines.1
We don’t often know about them—or don’t think about them— until there’s a problem. For instance, when the muscles are weakened, they can create problems with bladder and bowel control, known as incontinence.1
When that happens, we may be encouraged to perform pelvic exercises, but what other health advice do we receive? After all, pelvic health is about more than “just doing Kegels.” While strengthening the pelvic floor is important, there’s much more to the prevention and treatment of pelvic floor disorders.2
The reality is that pelvic floor “disorders” are common—1 in 4 women in the United States report moderate to severe symptoms of urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, or fecal incontinence.3
The pelvic floor is often “out of sight, out of mind,” with women first learning about this important structure when they have an injury. When that happens women often don’t know where to seek help.
Some are embarrassed to seek care, are afraid doctors will dismiss their concern, or simply write off the problem as an inevitable part of the aging process—this according to a survey conducted by the National Association for Continence.2
Or, the help isn’t available. A recent article published in the L.A. Times highlights the fact that pelvic care isn’t accessible to all women, with a number of reasons for this inadequacy of care:
- A shortage of pelvic health physical therapists, partly due to the fact that most physical therapy schools don’t train in pelvic health.1 Pelvic health physical therapy is the development of a treatment plan for pelvic floor conditions customized to your condition. One example is the performance of Kegel exercises, but there are many other therapy options depending on a woman’s specific situation.
- A difference in priority for women’s health versus men’s health issues. Stephanie A. Prendergast, co-founder of Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center, states: “There is a serious disparity between the way women’s health is approached and the way men’s health is approached.”1
- Funding for research is an issue. The National Institutes of Health funding for reproductive research, specifically in obstetrics and gynecology, is disproportionately low, and research is a key part of advancing healthcare. As stated in a report in the National Library of Medicine: “Underfunding for research in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology remains one of the several critical drivers in the decline in reproductive health and healthcare for women in the United States.”4 Part of the problem is also a lack of physician-scientists in this field.
- Visits to the doctor don’t always allow enough time to screen for or discuss all gynecological issues. The Times article states: “U.S. medicine is also highly specialized and siloed, with doctors generally focusing on specific organs and likely not well trained to recognize and treat pelvic floor disorders.”2
Why is Pelvic Health Important?
Just as with other parts of our bodies, women can take steps to maintain our pelvic health. General guidelines like not smoking will support all areas of your well-being, but there are specific ways to support pelvic health, like avoiding prolonged toileting, and straining or pushing during bowel movements and when urinating.
When muscles become weak or damaged, pelvic conditions can cause pain, impact your quality of life, and even lead to depression. Some of the examples of pelvic problems include:
- Incontinence or urinary leakage.
- Accidental bowel leakage, or fecal incontinence.
- Pelvic Organ Prolapse (POP), when your uterus, bladder, or rectum (or other tissues and organs) drop from their normal position.
- Difficult bowel movements or constipation.
- Incomplete bladder emptying or a weak urinary stream.
- Burning during urination.
- Pain when having sex.
There is Hope!
The Times article was not all doom and gloom when it comes to pelvic health. Health influencers like Tiffany Broadway, who launched the nonprofit Pelvic Awareness Project in 2020, are advancing knowledge about pelvic health.
“I realized nobody was really talking about it,” Broadway told The Times. “Doctors weren’t [even] talking about it.”
Don’t suffer in silence! Women who have pelvic floor issues often feel alone, which is far from the truth. Incontinence and even prolapse are common conditions for women, and they can negatively affect your quality of life. Help, advice and treatment is available.
Start by finding a physician near you with expertise in women’s health. Or, look for reputable resources that help advance your understanding about pelvic health, including preventative measures to ensure continued wellness for your pelvic floor.