Pelvic floor dysfunction is an umbrella term for a variety of disorders that occur when pelvic floor muscles and ligaments are impaired. Although this condition predominantly affects females, up to 16% of males suffer as well. Symptoms include pelvic pain, pressure, pain during sex, incontinence, incomplete emptying of feces, and visible organ protrusion. Tissues surrounding the pelvic organs may have increased or decreased sensitivity or irritation resulting in pelvic pain. Underlying causes of pelvic pain are often difficult to determine. The condition affects up to 50% of women who have given birth.
Mechanistically, the causes of pelvic floor dysfunction are two-fold: widening of the pelvic floor hiatus and descent of pelvic floor below the pubococcygeal line, with specific organ prolapse graded relative to the hiatus. Associations include obesity, menopause, pregnancy and childbirth. Some women may be more likely to developing pelvic floor dysfunction because of an inherited deficiency in their collagen type. Some women may have congenitally weak connective tissue and fascia and are therefore at risk of stress urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
If you think of the pelvis as being the home to organs like the bladder, uterus (or prostate in men) and rectum, the pelvic floor muscles are the home’s foundation. These muscles act as the support structure keeping everything in place within your body. Your pelvic floor muscles add support to several of your organs by wrapping around your pelvic bone. Some of these muscles add more stability by forming a sling around the rectum.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is a group of disorders that change the way people have bowel movements and sometimes cause pelvic pain. These disorders can be embarrassing to discuss, may be hard to diagnosis and often have a negative effect on quality of life. Symptoms vary by the type of disorder. Many general practitioners may not be familiar with pelvic floor dysfunction, and it may take a specialist, such as a colorectal surgeon, to discover the correct diagnosis.
Although many centers are familiar with retraining techniques to improve pelvic floor dysfunction, few have the multidisciplinary expertise to teach patients with constipation how to appropriately coordinate abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during defecation, and how to use bowel management techniques, along with behavior modification, to relieve symptoms. Because pelvic floor dysfunction can be associated with psychological, sexual or physical abuse and other life stressors, psychological counseling is often included in the evaluation process.
Home exercise programs are essential for each patient. In the case of weakness, a patient will require more pelvic floor, core and functional strengthening and stability exercises. For overactive and pain conditions, the HEP typically consists of relaxation techniques, self-massages (both external and internal), gentle stretching, cardiovascular fitness as tolerated, and eventually pain-free core stability exercises. Both require postural and behavioral modifications and self-care strategies. For more information and detail, check out the book: Heal Pelvic Pain, by Amy Stein or her DVD: Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain here.
Rectocele: A rectocele is a bulge of the front wall of the rectum into the vagina. Normally, the rectum goes straight down to the anus (picture). When a patient with a rectocele strains, the stool may get caught in an abnormal pocket of the rectum which bulges into the vagina. This prevents the patient from emptying the rectum completely. Generally, rectoceles do not produce symptoms. As they grow larger, rectoceles may cause difficulty going to the bathroom, or cause leakage of stool after having a bowel movement. Rectoceles are more common in women who have given birth. Rectoceles are usually caused by thinning of the tissue between the rectum and vagina and weakening of the pelvic floor muscles.
Discussed extensively in Travel and Simon’s two volume series, trigger points are taut (firm) points in the muscle that have a consistent referral pattern (they transmit pain to the another part of the body). Trigger points are not only important because they cause pain, they also can affect how the muscle works. This is one of the main reasons our therapists at Beyond Basics are fastidious about ensuring all trigger points are released in the abdomen, back, legs and pelvic floor before transitioning to any core stabiltiy or strengthening exercises that can re activate a trigger point.
Surface electrodes (self-adhesive pads placed on your skin) can test your pelvic muscle control. This might be an option if you don’t want an internal exam. The electrodes are placed on the perineum (the area between the vagina and rectum in women, and between the testicles and rectum in men) or on the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of your spine). This test is not painful.
Some pelvic floor physical therapists may have the opportunity of getting a lot of time to speak one-on-one with a patient to determine possible causes of his or her symptoms, educate the patient and to guide them to other practitioners who may optimize their physical therapy results if necessary. We truly can find out so much by just listening to what our patients have to say. A fall, or infection can be significant as well as a patient’s feelings and knowledge about their current condition.
Biofeedback is now the most common treatment for pelvic floor dysfunction. It is usually done with the help of a physical therapist and it improves the condition for 75% of patients, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It is non-invasive, and after working with a physical therapist, you may be able to use a home unit to continue with this therapy.
Obstructed Defecation: Obstructed defecation is difficulty getting bowel movements out of the body. Although the stool reaches the rectum, or bottom of the colon, the patient has difficulty emptying. This often makes patients feel that they need to go the bathroom more often, or that they cannot empty completely, as if stool remains in their rectum. Obstructed defecation may be caused by pelvic floor prolapse (discussed below), pain symptoms or muscles not functioning normally.