No woman will get through her pregnancy without hearing these two little words, and the confusion which often surrounds them can be enough to trigger a minor panic attack.
Most of us know it has something to do with bladder control but beyond that, its significance to our bodies and our lives can be vague.
Yet it’s extremely important. And the impact on our pelvic floor by pregnancy and birth is something we can work to minimise from conception.
To make things a little clearer, we spoke with Women’s Health Physiotherapist and Director of BeActive Physiotherapy, Shira Kramer.
The pelvic floor is the base of a group of muscles referred to as the ‘core’. These muscles are located in the pelvis and attach to the pubic bone and the front and tail-bone (coccyx) and the back.
“The pelvic floor muscles work together with the deep abdominal muscles and deep back muscles to support the spine,” says Dr Kramer.
“They also help to control the pressure inside the abdominal cavity and assist in supporting the bladder, bowel and uterus in women.
“In addition they help maintain bladder and bowel control and play an important role in sexual sensation and function.”
In pregnancy the hormone ‘relaxin’ is released throughout the body and softens the tissues to accommodate for the growing baby.
“This softening effect of relaxing along the increased weight of the baby (and body weight) places pressure on the pelvic floor muscles,” says Dr Kramer.
The pelvic floor muscles and ligaments are stretched during childbirth to allow delivery of the baby from the pelvic outlet.
According to Dr Kramer, there are a number of risk factors that contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction.
“Absolutely!” says Dr Kramer.
Pelvic floor muscle exercises are an effective way to maintain pelvic floor strength during and after pregnancy.
“Good pelvic floor muscle tone enables women to maintain bladder and bowel control through pregnancy and into motherhood”.
“They also help reduce the risk of developing prolapse during and after pregnancy and assist with recovery after birth.”
Childbirth is essentially a trauma to the pelvic floor muscle. Like any soft tissue injury there may be pain, swelling and inflammation.
The pelvic floor muscles take time to get back to their usual state after birth.
The effects of the hormone relaxin can last up to 6 months after birth and pelvic floor care post delivery is crucial in the recovery process.
Dr Kramer recommends a regime of rest, ice, compression and elevation in the first few days following a vaginal delivery.
“Yes,” says Dr Kramer.
Most hospitals have a physiotherapist come and do a postnatal check and give advice on how to care for pelvic floor muscles post delivery.
If appropriate they will also teach you how to activate these muscles and give you advice to optimise recovery.
Those not assessed in hospital or those requiring follow up should check in to see a local women’s health physiotherapist for assessment and management.
Being aware of what signs and symptoms to look out for is crucial. If in doubt seek a professional opinion.
It is recommended to seek professional assessment by a women’s health physiotherapist if any of the symptoms below are experienced:
Pelvic floor muscle care should be prioritised in pregnancy and in the postnatal period.
“For the first few days following delivery rest, ice and compression are recommended,” says Dr Kramer.
“Integrating pelvic floor exercises as guided by health care professional is integral to recovery and optimising function.
To perform a basic pelvic floor exercise tighten and lift around your front and back passage as if you are holding on to go to the toilet, and releasing. These can be performed during pregnancy as well.
“Make pelvic floor exercise a part of your daily life,” says Dr Kramer.
“Tightening your pelvic floor muscles every time you cough, sneeze or lift.
“Doing some regular exercise such as walking.
“Progressing your exercises by doing them during the day in different positions such as standing, sitting or leaning on your hands and knees.”
Ideally an assessment by a women’s health physiotherapist is recommended, as they have a variety of assessment tools which may include a gentle digital examination or an assessment with real-time ultrasound.
“At home as a one off test to see if you are on the right track try to stop the flow of urine whilst you are on the toilet.
If you can stop the flow you are likely on the right track. If there is no change to the flow you are unlikely activating the muscle correctly.”
“Ease back into exercise and make sure your program is safe for your pelvic floor,” says Dr Kramer.
“Avoid high impact exercise such as running and jumping, no lifting unless absolutely necessary and set your pelvic floor muscles before you lift, sneeze or cough.
“Also try to avoid constipation, putting on too much weight and repetitive coughing and straining.”
A professional can assess for progress by testing the strength (how hard you can squeeze) of the contraction as well as the endurance of the contraction (how long you can hold it for).
For many women, it is important to follow a specific exercise program tailored to their individual needs.
If you are unsure of whether you are exercising your pelvic floor muscles correctly or you have urinary problems, you should make an appointment with a women’s health physiotherapist.