Your body is made up of many different organs, muscles, bones, and other tissues. Down to the last cell, each of these components has a specific function to help you stay healthy and live your best life. However, many of these important body parts and systems don’t receive the attention they deserve to operate to the best of their ability.
One muscle group that is a vital component of your health, yet often goes forgotten, is the pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor plays an essential role in your day-to-day life, especially as a woman, but it can become weak if you don’t care for it properly. Here’s a quick guide to help you better understand the function of a woman’s pelvic floor and the natural ways you can strengthen yours.
While you may have heard the term “pelvic floor” before, if you’re like the majority of women, you might be a little unsure regarding its precise function. The pelvic floor is actually a group of two primary muscles, each with different components that work together to stabilize your core and help your body perform basic functions like urinating. These muscles are what give you the ability to “hold on” when you have the urge to urinate, helping prevent incontinence.
Your pelvic floor also works to support important organs like your uterus, bladder, and intestines. Without the support that the pelvic floor offers, you could be subject to medical issues like prolapse, which occurs when the lower abdominal organs press against weakened muscles and bulge into the vaginal area.
What Can Weaken a Woman’s Pelvic Floor?
Because the pelvic floor assists in a variety of important bodily functions, it can be weakened over time with repeated use. More often, the pelvic floor can become weak after strenuous situations. As your pelvic floor weakens, it can lose its ability to perform as well or even begin to become dysfunctional, causing prolapse and other issues.
Some of the most common causes of weakened pelvic floor muscles in women include the following:
In addition to supporting a variety of other organs, a woman’s pelvic floor supports her uterus for the entire nine months she is pregnant. With the consistent pressure of a growing fetus, amniotic sac, and uterus on the pelvic floor, pregnancy can weaken this muscle group over time. Pregnancy also causes a wide range of hormonal changes, which are known to soften the pelvic floor and ultimately make it more elastic than usual.
After nine full months of pregnancy, women are already facing a potentially weakened pelvic floor. Unfortunately, the stress that childbirth puts on the body can weaken the muscles to an even greater extent. Because childbirth involves consistent, strenuous pushing using core muscles, it’s easy to strain the pelvic floor during the process. Women that experience long deliveries with extended pushing and women who give birth to heavier babies face an elevated chance of straining their pelvic floor muscles during birth.
Excessive Heavy Lifting
The pelvic floor works with the abdominal muscles and diaphragm to form what is known as the core. All these different muscles work together to help people lift objects varying in size and weight. However, consistent heavy lifting can put a great deal of stress on the core muscles and can ultimately strain them. If heavy lifting is paired with other factors that have weakened the pelvic floor, including pregnancy, women have a much higher risk of straining these muscles and causing dysfunction.
Hormonal Changes or Old Age
Women face hormonal changes during pregnancy as well as during menopause, and these changes in the body’s hormone levels can affect the pelvic floor. As women age, the pelvic floor must work harder to support the various organs and other musculature while it slowly softens. This is why many older women have issues with incontinence or leakage as their ability to control their pelvic floor muscles gradually diminish.
While constipation isn’t always something that can be controlled, it can also have a negative effect on the pelvic floor and overall health, especially if constipation continues. Because the pelvic floor supports the bowels, constipation can not only put too much consistent pressure on those muscles, but they’ll also face excessive straining while in use. If this happens for an extended period of time, the muscles can weaken as a result.
While it might seem like a minor issue, especially as it concerns the muscular system, women that are constantly coughing are putting a great deal of wear and tear on their lungs, throat, and pelvic floor. This is because every time a cough occurs, the core muscles are forced to contract and relax. Excessive coughing constantly tightens your pelvic floor muscles and can strain them as time goes on.
How Do You Know If Your Pelvic Floor Is Weak?
If your pelvic floor is weak, your body may begin to show a variety of symptoms that are a result of this muscle dysfunction.
Some of the most common signs that you have a weak or softened pelvic floor include:
- Inability to control your bladder or bowels
- Leaking during certain kinds of exercises, activities, or even when laughing too hard
- Painful sex
- Lack of feeling or sensation during sex
- Recurring UTIs or yeast infections
- Consistent inability to reach a bathroom on time
- Pain putting tampons in
- Tampons falling out
- A feeling of “heaviness” in the vagina
- Accidentally passing gas when lifting or bending over
- A distinct bulge in the vagina
How Can You Strengthen Your Pelvic Floor?
Fortunately, there are natural methods you can use to strengthen your pelvic floor, even if strenuous situations have caused it to weaken over time. Some of the best exercises and tips to follow when trying to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles include:
Kegels exercises for women are among the most well-known pelvic floor exercises for a reason: they’re extremely effective and can be done by almost anyone. Kegels can be done in a variety of different ways and positions and are relatively simple to do at almost any time. Once you have familiarized yourself with your pelvic floor muscles, squeeze and relax those muscles about 15 times while regulating your breathing. As you begin to do them more often, you can increase the number of contractions you complete. Within just a few months of doing Kegels regularly, most women begin to see results.
Heel Slide Exercises
Heel slides are a great exercise that helps you engage your core muscles and work your pelvic floor. To do heel slides, lay on the floor with your legs straight and arms flat at your sides. You’ll begin by inhaling and sliding one leg up until your knee is fully bent and then sliding it back down to a resting position on an exhale. Depending on what’s most comfortable for you, it’s recommended to start with ten slides for the first leg, then switch. You can do multiple sets of ten for each leg if you feel you’re able to do more.
Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes referred to as belly breathing, is a breathing exercise that encourages using all your core muscles to inhale and exhale deeply. This technique is not only useful for building your lung capacity and strengthening your diaphragm, but it also helps to build a stronger relationship between your pelvic floor and your diaphragm. As an added benefit, it often helps people relax.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple exercise you can perform either lying down or seated. To begin, place one hand on your stomach and the other comfortably on your chest. Then, take a deep breath in for about four to five seconds, and feel your diaphragm expand as you inhale. Hold that breath for about two to three seconds, and then whenever you’re ready, very slowly exhale for around five or six seconds until you feel empty. You can repeat this process for your desired time period, often anywhere from five to 25 minutes.
Yoga or Pilates
Both yoga and Pilates focus on increasing mobility and encouraging strong relationships between you and your body, as well as among your most important bodily systems. With an emphasis on breathing techniques in addition to stretching and slow, steady workouts, yoga and Pilates can help to strengthen your pelvic floor over time through simple, consistent practice. Even practicing yoga for as little as ten minutes three times a week can make a significant difference in your flexibility, mobility, muscle strength, and overall health.
How Long Does It Take to Strengthen Your Pelvic Floor?
Because every woman’s body is unique and each pelvic floor may have a different level of strength, the amount of time it takes a woman to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles can vary. On average, regular pelvic floor exercises and maintaining healthy habits can help to rebuild your pelvic floor’s strength within just a few weeks. Many women begin to see and feel noticeable results at around four weeks of consistent pelvic floor work. By eight to twelve weeks, you can replenish a great deal of your pelvic floor strength.
Can Your Pelvic Floor Be Too Tight?
While a weak pelvic floor can be dangerous, sometimes, muscles that are too tight can also cause medical problems. When the muscles of a pelvic floor are constantly tensed, you have a condition that is referred to as a “hypertonic pelvic floor.” A hypertonic pelvic floor occurs when the pelvic floor is too tight, and the muscles within it are unable to relax and stop contracting.
The symptoms of a hypertonic pelvic floor can be much like those of a weakened pelvic floor, with a few differences:
- Painful sex
- Difficulty initiating urination
- Pain or discomfort while eliminating urine or waste
- Random bursts of pain in the core or pelvic region during specific movements
- Urinary incontinence
- Pain in the lower back
- Frequent urination
- Consistent pressure on the lower back, pelvis, and hips
Signs of a Healthy Pelvic Floor
Because most people wait until health issues occur before seeking medical advice regarding the pelvic floor, many women are unsure about the health of their pelvic floor until symptoms are severe. It’s important to keep the health of your pelvic floor in mind, and fortunately, it’s relatively simple to self-monitor between appointments.
If you’re still a few months away from your next gynecology appointment, here are some signs to look for that indicate you have a strong, healthy pelvic floor:
- No pain or discomfort while urinating or eliminating waste
- No incontinence
- No accidental leakages when exercising, laughing, or lifting
- No pressure or heaviness within the vagina
- Sex isn’t painful
- You do pelvic floor exercises regularly
- You can hold urine until you can reach a bathroom
- You maintain a healthy weight
- You noticed increased sensitivity to sex
- You have a strong abdomen
- Kegels do not make you excessively tired
Women’s Care at Arizona Gynecology Consultants
Your pelvic floor plays a key role in your health and your everyday life. Here at Arizona Gynecology Consultants, we advocate for pelvic floor care and preventing the issues that can come with pelvic floor issues. That’s why our team is dedicated to working with women and providing them with the compassionate, high-quality care they deserve.
At Arizona Gynecology Consultants, our skilled medical providers are prepared to work with you and help you find solutions to your women’s health concerns. To learn more about our available gynecology services in Arizona or to schedule your next appointment, contact us today.
Tessa has been a Phoenix resident for over 15 years. She graduated from Arizona State University with undergraduate degrees in both Nursing and Biology. She worked as a Labor and Delivery nurse at Banner University Medical Center, beginning her career in Women’s Health. She continued to grow her practice and expertise by earning her Doctorate in Nursing Practice.