If you're pregnant or have recently delivered a baby, you've probably been focusing on many aspects of your health: eating well, exercising, getting proper rest, drinking enough water and taking your prenatal vitamins religiously. However, there's one major health element many women overlook: their pelvic floor.
"Pregnancy and childbirth creates a major musculoskeletal change to the body," explains Sara Underhill Macmillan, PT, DPT at Saint Thomas Health. "The body goes through a lot of changes in a relatively short period of time, whether you had a C-section or a vaginal delivery."
Alarmingly, many new moms mistakenly believe that their postpartum pelvic floor symptoms are just part of the "new normal" and they just have to learn to live with it. Sadly, many times their complaints are dismissed by both doctors and society, and they never get the answers they're searching for.
If you're not totally sure what your pelvic floor does, you're not alone; many women aren't familiar with this sling of muscles that are located from your pubic bone back to your tailbone.
"These muscles are about four inches thick and make up the wall of your vagina and rectum as well as support your bladder and urethra," Macmillan explains. "They are very important in sexual function. Additionally, the pelvic floor muscles make up part of your core. They work with your deep abdominal muscles and low back muscles to stabilize your body and your spine as well as assisting in holding your organs in place."
Who is at risk?
Since pelvic floor muscles are very much like any other muscle group in your body, they can get tight and painful and they can also become weak. "Pelvic floor dysfunction can happen to any woman at any stage of life," Macmillan says, clearing up the misconception that this issue only affects older women or women who have had babies. "It can occur due to a low back or hip injury, hormonal changes, or even a change in activity level. In regards to child birth, the muscles may be weak after giving birth, or the muscles might become painful due to the way a scar has healed." Macmillan says that even a C-section scar can create pain and tightness in the pelvic floor.
Symptoms and Treatment
So what signs and symptoms should postpartum moms be aware of? Macmillan says if a woman is struggling with incontinence, pelvic pain or pressure after delivery or pain with intercourse, she may be dealing with pelvic floor dysfunction.
When it comes to treatment, it's a complicated answer; treatment for pelvic floor dysfunction varies according to the problem. "Pelvic floor muscles should be treated by a pelvic floor physical therapist. They evaluate the muscles and let the person know what they specifically need," Macmillan says. "A good strengthening program may need to be given if the primary problem is weakness. In other cases, the focus may need to be on relaxation, stretching, and balancing of the pelvis to decrease pain. A lot of education is always necessary in order to completely heal."
There are some things you can do to lessen your risk. Macmillan says you should be paying attention to your kegels, especially while pregnant. "Good kegel or pelvic floor strength is important for supporting your body during pregnancy and recovering after delivery."
Macmillan believes every woman who has had a baby would benefit from seeing a physical therapist after delivery, even if she isn't having any symptoms. "The physical therapist can educate you on how strengthen correctly, your pelvic floor and abdominal wall, or assist you in decreasing any pain you may have. She can also give skilled advice on how to use their body to prevent problems in the future."