Keeping your pelvic floor in shape

pelvic floor in shapeWe all get told to look after it and that there will be dire consequences in our middle age if we don’t. But what’s the secret to keeping your pelvic floor in shape? What exactly is our pelvic floor and how can we care for it?

Though it sounds like something made of hard bone, our pelvic floor is actually a group of muscles and ligaments. Our pelvic floor muscles are a bit like a hammock that attaches from our pubic bone at the front to our tail bone at the back. These muscles support our pelvic organs — bladder, uterus (womb) and bowel.

They also support the contents of our abdomen, especially when we are standing or exerting ourselves. They help us to control our bladder and bowel function, allowing us to ‘hold on’ until we are in an appropriate place. Your pelvic floor actively squeezes when you cough or sneeze to help your bladder stay closed.

A strong pelvic floor
It is important to have a strong pelvic floor to prevent problems like incontinence (leaky bladder/bowel) and prolapse (an organ like your womb falling forward or out of place). There are lots of things that can cause our pelvic floor muscles to weaken —you might even be breastfeeding one of them right now! Childbirth, particularly delivering a large baby, or a prolonged period pushing during delivery, can damage or weaken your pelvic floor. Other causes include pregnancy, being overweight, chronic constipation, heavy lifting, excessive coughing and just generally growing older with the changes in hormone levels brought about by menopause.

A weak pelvic floor
Weak pelvic floor muscles are quite common. One large study showed that 25% of women have moderate to severe weakness. If you have a weak pelvic floor you may notice that it is hard to hold on’ when you need to go the toilet or things feel like they are ‘falling out’ in that area. You may find it difficult to tighten your pelvic floor muscles even when you try hard to do so.

Like all muscles, the pelvic floor muscles respond to regular work outs

Treatment
The main treatment for weak pelvic floor muscles is specific exercises. Like all muscles, they respond to regular work outs. Exercising weak muscles regularly over a period of time can strengthen them and make them work effectively again.

Gentle exercise such as walking can also help. It’s a good idea to get specific pelvic floor exercises to do during pregnancy and after childbirth from a health care professional such as a physiotherapist. Your health care professional will know your medical history and can give you the right sort of exercises to do for your personal situation.

If you get into the habit of doing these exercises each day, they will soon become second nature and your pelvic floor will become stronger. Most pelvic floor muscle exercises have a combination of quick squeezes (as if you were sneezing or coughing) and longer holds (to encourage you to be able to ‘hold on’). These exercises are sometimes called Kegel Exercises, after the doctor who originally developed them.

There are also special pelvic floor exercise devices that your health care professional might recommend.

Further information:

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Susan Greenbank
Courtesy Essence Magazine

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