You may have heard yourgynecologist use the phrase ‘pelvic floor,’ but do you really know anything about yours? If you don’t, there’s no need to stress—we’re giving you all the facts, plus tips on how to prevent issues from occurring down the road. We talked to Dr. Melinda Abernethy, Assistant Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and an expert on pelvic floor disorders. Here’s what you need to know.
What is your pelvic floor?
According to Dr. Abernethy, your pelvic floor is the set of muscles, ligaments and connective tissue at the base of your pelvis. Your pelvic floor is there to support your internal pelvic organs—your urethra and bladder, vagina and uterus and rectum. It also helps stabilize the pelvic bones. Though it is often overlooked, the pelvic floor is an important part of the body’s muscular core. So, now you know!
Why is it important?
“The pelvic floor helps with urination and bowel movements and helps prevent urine and fecal leakage,” says Dr. Abernethy. While this doesn’t sound very glamorous, keep in mind that the pelvic floor also plays a role in sexual enjoyment. Your pelvic floor muscles, known as the pubococcygeal (PC) muscles, contract during orgasm. Regular pelvic floor workouts, specifically kegel exercises (more on those later!), can lead to more enjoyable sex. Basically, you may be more easily aroused and/or have stronger orgasms.
What should college women know about their pelvic floors?
You may know that pregnancy and childbirth can weaken the pelvic floor, due to increasing pressure. Dr. Abernethy explains that there are other factors that can also negatively affect the pelvic floor, such as being constipated, having a chronic cough (like with smoking) and being overweight. “Even if you don’t have any of these risk factors, just getting older also impacts the pelvic floor,” says Dr. Abernethy. “It is better to start taking care of your pelvic floor BEFORE you have any issues. Exercises like yoga and pilates can help to strengthen your entire core, including the pelvic floor.” As if we needed another reason why yoga is good for us!
How would you know if something was wrong with your pelvic floor?
According to Dr. Abernethy, “You should see your doctor if you have difficulty with holding onto or releasing urine or stool or if you have pain in your pelvis or vagina (including pain during intercourse).” She explains that you can talk to any doctor about these issues and they will direct you to the right specialist if needed. If you are experiencing pain during sex, you could have a problem with your pelvic floor. Contact your doctor if you feel that something may be wrong—better safe than sorry!
Should college women be doing kegel exercises to strengthen their pelvic floors?
One word: yes! “Similar to abdominal exercises to strengthen your abdominal core, women should exercise their pelvic floor muscles to help maintain their function,” says Dr. Abernethy. “Kegel exercises can be done anywhere or anytime. Just find the muscles that you use to stop the flow of urine, and squeeze them for 5-10 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10 times with 10 seconds of rest between each squeeze. Ideally, you would repeat the set three times a day, but anything is better than nothing.”
If you have any of the symptoms discussed above, however, Dr. Abernethy recommends seeing your doctor before starting kegel exercises. In some circumstances, they can make the situation worse.
How does strenuous exercise affect the pelvic floor?
Listen up, sports stars! “Athletes, especially those who participate in high impact activities (gymnastics, track and field, soccer, field hockey, etc.) put additional strain on all of their core muscles, including the pelvic floor,” says Dr. Abernethy. “If anyone has tried to run when you really have to urinate, you should understand this well!” If you are a woman who falls into this category of athleticism, you should be aware that you are at increased risk for developing pelvic floor dysfunction. Because of this, you should participate in helpful pelvic floor activities like yoga, pilates and doing kegels. If you already engage in any of these exercises, you’re one step ahead of the game.
The pelvic floor may be overlooked, but it definitely should not be! Like Dr. Abernethy says, “Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about ANY symptoms associated with your pelvic floor. If you have a problem with urination, bowel movements or sexual function—tell us! We can help (it is what we do!) but only if we know that you have a problem.” Keep an eye out for any possible pelvic issues, and in the mean time, start doing those kegels!