Pelvic floor health after pregnancy

August 25th, 2020
A pregnant woman admires her growing stomach in this photo.
Exercise, posture and body mechanics can make a big difference in how a woman feels and functions after pregnancy. Photo: Getty Images

Pregnancy affects a woman’s body in a variety of ways. But there’s one change women may not consider: the impact to the pelvic floor.

The pelvic floor muscles sit within the pelvis and support a woman’s bladder, rectum and reproductive organs. They play an important role in core stability, bladder function and more.

While the strain of pregnancy and delivery may cause issues in the pelvic floor, the good news is that most of those issues can be resolved.

“A lot of women assume that things will never feel the same after pregnancy, but pelvic physical therapists do not agree,” said Cheryl Tenpas, a physical therapist specializing in pelvic health at UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “There are a lot of things we can do with exercise, posture and body mechanics that can make a big difference in how you feel and function.”

Below, Tenpas outlines the most common post-partum pelvic floor issues she sees.

Low back pain

About 40% of women report low back pain even six months after delivery. Often, that pain is due to a weakness in the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor.

“The abdominal muscles and muscles along the spine are antagonists to each other,” Tenpas said. “If you’re weak anteriorly, this can translate to dysfunction posteriorly. The body works as a unit, and we need to think about the pelvic floor when we think about strengthening the core.”

Along with core strength, Tenpas works with patients on improving posture and body mechanics when doing everyday activities, such as lifting and carrying a baby.

Pelvic floor weakness

This condition is often described as a feeling of heaviness in the pelvis. “Some women feel that after using the bathroom, things don’t return to where they should be,” Tenpas said. “Or during intercourse, they may feel pain or that something just isn’t right.”

This weakness may impact the bladder, causing leaking or frequent urination at night.

As with low back pain, the appropriate exercises can help rebuild strength in the pelvic floor.

Separation of abdominal muscles

Also known as diastasis recti, this issue may result from mechanical stresses in the body during pregnancy, including the widening of the pelvis, stretching of ligaments and the change to the center of gravity.

“You could see coning of the skin between the edges of your abdominals, or an issue with more tissue around the naval that you didn’t notice before,” Tenpas said.

The issue makes it difficult to manage pressure within the abdomen, which can cause leaking of urine, as well as bowel issues.

Though the condition impacts about a third of women up to one year after childbirth, it can be addressed with specific exercises. Tenpas advises to skip the planks and crunches, which should be avoided until the muscles have approximated, or come closer together.

Pelvic floor pain

Pregnancy and delivery can result in scar tissue and overactive pelvic floor muscles, and may damage nerves in the pelvic floor, all of which may result in pain.

“Some women think this pain is just something they have to live with,” Tenpas said. “But over time, it can affect how the whole body functions, and can keep you from participating in activities you want to do.”

Specific movements and exercises can help relax overactive muscles and decrease scar tissue, helping to reduce symptoms.

For any pelvic floor issue, a pelvic physical therapist can help create an individualized exercise plan.

“A specific pelvic floor muscle assessment is so important in determining which exercises are the right ones for each patient,” Tenpas said.

Tenpas likes to remind patients that it’s never too late to work on the pelvic floor, that no problem is too small, and that taking care of yourself is also a way to care for your baby.

“You can be years post-partum, and exercise can still make a big difference in function,” Tenpas said. “And if something is bothering you, it’s worth addressing.

“Remember that you’re doing something for your baby, too,” Tenpas said. “You’ll be more able to be active in your child’s life if you spend a little time on yourself.”

 

This story first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.