Do you remember learning about the pelvic floor in high school anatomy? Chances are, you probably don’t! I sure don’t. The topic wasn’t all that appealing and it didn’t seem relevant back then. But, boy oh, boy, how often things change as we age, right?
Today, your pelvic floor is more important than it’s ever been before. More than one-third of American women have a pelvic floor disorder, like pelvic prolapse, and they only become more common as we age. Oof. Toss me some anti-wrinkle cream.
What You Missed In Anatomy About The Pelvic Floor
Although you’ve been carrying your pelvic floor around with you your entire life, you probably don’t know much about it. Let’s start off with a little anatomy lesson to get you up to speed. Your pelvic floor includes the ligaments, muscles, nerves, and connective tissues that assist the organs surrounding your lower abdomen. Those organs include your bladder, vagina, large intestine (rectum), uterus, and small intestine.
Although we don’t think about it, a lot happens when we pee, poo, or poot. When functioning properly, the pelvic floor muscles relax, which allows for the release of urine and feces. However, when the pelvic floor muscles are irritated or weak, the organs necessary for peeing and pooping contract abnormally which can cause incontinence.
Your pelvic organs would have difficulty performing their normal functions if it weren’t for your pelvic floor, so let’s show it some love. Three cheers for the pelvic floor: hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!
Ladies, there’s one other important thing for you to know about the pelvic floor. Women are much more likely than men to experience pelvic floor problems as they age. In fact, 27 percent of women ages 40 to 59 are affected by pelvic floor disorders!
Uh Oh, Am I At Risk For Pelvic Floor Disorders?
When we reach the best years of our lives (the 40s and beyond, of course!), our pelvic floor starts to weaken due to a significant drop in estrogen. Yep, it’s the hormones’ fault again. This is especially true for women who are going through or have gone through menopause. Your risk of developing pelvic floor problems also increases if you’ve ever been pregnant, had a baby, or had a hysterectomy. So, yes, a lot of us are at risk of pelvic floor issues by the time we hit 50.
The Three Main Pelvic Floor Disorders You Should Know About
If you’ve ever experienced any of the issues previously mentioned, then you’re at risk of the three main pelvic floor disorders: fecal incontinence, urinary incontinence, and pelvic prolapse. Those are the technical terms for accidental bowel leakage, bladder leaks, and a saggy pelvic floor, respectively. Pelvic prolapse is when the bladder, uterus, and bowel do a demon “drop” onto the vagina and cause a bulge through the vaginal canal. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
The Common Yet Misunderstood, Pelvic Prolapse
Awkward, uncomfortable, and completely undesirable are words to describe a pelvic prolapse. Think of it like a hair that won’t get into place and that keeps falling in your face without permission. A pelvic prolapse is like that but with organs. On top of that, most people think that there’s only one type of pelvic prolapse, but there’s actually four. The four types of pelvic prolapse are:
- Cystocele – when the upper vaginal wall loses support and the bladder falls out of position and into the vagina
- Enterocele – when the lower vaginal wall loses support and the rectum bulges upward into the vagina
- Rectocele – when the small intestine distends into the vagina
- Uterine prolapse – when the uterus falls into the vagina
No matter what type of pelvic prolapse you have, all roads lead to the vagina. And as a woman in the best years of my life, pelvic prolapse sounds like something I want nothing to do with! So, if you’re feeling like that too, then you’re certainly not alone.
There are Levels To Pelvic Prolapse
As if the different types of pelvic prolapse wasn’t enough, there are also five different stages, which are:
- 0 – Yay, no prolapse!
- 1 – Practically no prolapse.
- 2 – Prolapsed tissue begins to fall, but the organs are still inside the vagina
- 3 – Prolapsed tissue expands beyond the vaginal opening
- 4 – Pelvic organs are completely out of the vagina. Yikes.
Pelvic Prolapse Signs And Symptoms
Pelvic prolapse is hard to miss because it feels like you’re sitting on a ball, and that’s just one of the symptoms. If you cough or laugh and experience bladder leakage, then you probably have at least a small amount of pelvic prolapse. Women that have a sudden urge to go and are unable to make it the toilet may also have a pelvic prolapse disorder. If sex has become painful, your toilet has become your main hang out spot, and you keep passing wind, then pelvic prolapse could be the culprit.
What’s Urine Leaks Got To Do With It?
If you can, take a moment to imagine your pelvic floor as a hammock supporting the weight of your organs. Sure, it doesn’t sound as fun as you sitting on a hammock on the beach, but bear with me. As your organs are happily sitting there, suddenly the hammock starts to fall down to the ground (i.e. your vaginal opening). The lack of support from the pelvic floor hammock triggers urinary difficulties like bladder incontinence and so the cycle begins.
In short, stress and significant strain on the pelvic floor muscles can make your bladder droop and your urine drip. The next time you feel the sudden urge to pee and nothing comes out, it could be a result of pelvic prolapse. The same goes for if you have to go and you have a little spritz before getting to the toilet. Every woman’s situation is different, but unfortunately, none of them are comfortable.
Is Pelvic Prolapse Treatable?
If you’re sitting there biting your fingernails waiting to figure out if pelvic prolapse is treatable, then I’ve got news for you. Pelvic prolapse is typically treatable and to some extent, the bladder leaks are too! Kegels and other pelvic floor exercises are a popular and non-surgical method of treating issues that come along with pelvic prolapse. If you do these, I promise your bladder will thank you!
A pessary, which is a ring-like prosthetic device that a medical professional can insert into your vagina, is also helpful too. The pessary helps reduce the drooping of pelvic organs into the vagina.
Although it’s less common, surgery is sometimes the best method for improving pelvic prolapse. One option is laparoscopic pelvic floor repair, which is where a surgeon rebuilds the pelvic floor. While that may sound complex and scary, it’s actually pretty simple.
Common But Undiscussed
If you’re experiencing pelvic floor prolapse or bladder leakage, know that you’re not alone. Women of all ages are dealing with it too, and they’re keeping silent just like you. However, there’s no reason to be hushed about the situation! Chances are, one of your closest friends is going through it as well. Wouldn’t it be nice to support each other, share advice, and even laugh about the “oops” and “uh-ohs”?
At the end of the day, you don’t have anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about and there are options available to you.
Do you have advice for other women with pelvic prolapse? Share it in the comments!
By Jessica Thompson, MPH