By definition, postpartum pelvic floor dysfunction only affects women who have given birth, though pregnancy rather than birth or birth method is thought to be the cause. A study of 184 first-time mothers who delivered by Caesarean section and 100 who delivered vaginally found that there was no significant difference in the prevalence of symptoms 10 months following delivery, suggesting that pregnancy is the cause of incontinence for many women irrespective of their mode of delivery. The study also suggested that the changes which occur to the properties of collagen and other connective tissues during pregnancy may affect pelvic floor function.
Treatment is based on the cause of the dysfunction and severity of symptoms. Surgical treatment is rarely needed for pelvic floor dysfunction, except for large, symptomatic rectoceles or other pelvic prolapse. In the case of prolapse, surgery may help to restore the normal location of pelvic organs. This may be performed through the abdomen or through the bottom, depending on the specific problem.
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.
Once patients with pelvic floor constipation have these basic tools, they can begin retraining the pelvic floor muscles with biofeedback. Based on the principle of operant conditioning, biofeedback provides auditory and visual feedback to help retrain the pelvic floor and relax the anal sphincter. Biofeedback training is the treatment of choice for medically refractory pelvic floor constipation, with some studies showing improvement in more than 70 percent of patients. Patients also learn to identify internal sensations associated with relaxation and long-term skills and exercises for use at home.
Pelvic Floor Prolapse: The pelvic floor consists of the muscles and organs of the pelvis, such as the rectum, vagina, bladder. Stretching of the pelvic floor may occur with aging, collagen disorders or after childbirth. When the pelvic floor is stretched, the rectum, vagina, or bladder may protrude through the rectum or vagina, causing a bulge, which can be felt. In addition to a rectocele, patients may have rectal prolapse, a cystocele (prolapse of the bladder) or protrusion of the small bowel. Symptoms generally include difficulty in emptying during urination or defecation, incontinence or pressure in the pelvis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A defecating proctogram is a test where you’re given an enema of a thick liquid that can be seen with an X-ray. Your provider will use a special video X-ray to record the movement of your muscles as you attempt to push the liquid out of the rectum. This will help to show how well you are able to pass a bowel movement or any other causes for pelvic floor dysfunction. 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.