What is the pelvic floor?
Men and women both have a pelvic floor—a hammock-shaped cluster of muscles, ligaments, connective tissues, and nerves that support the bladder and rectum—but in women, it also helps the uterus and vagina function properly. That’s why pelvic floor disorders are particularly common in women. In fact, a recent analysis of data from five years’ worth of National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (2005 to 2010), which included nearly 8,000 non-pregnant women, found that 17 percent suffered from moderate-to-severe urinary incontinence and 9.4 percent with fecal incontinence, both common types of pelvic floor disorders.
You can’t control your bladder
racorn/ShutterstockIf you suffer from urinary incontinence—a lack of bladder control that results in leaking—you technically have a pelvic floor disorder. “Some people have stress incontinence, which is leakage caused by coughing, laughing, or sneezing,” says Kimberly Ferrante, MD, uro-gynecologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Women who do heavy weight-lifting or CrossFit-type workouts also commonly experience incontinence because of all the pressure lifting and strenuous exercises put on the bladder. (Here’s what your bladder is secretly trying to tell you.)
Your vagina feel weird
If your vagina feels heavy, full, or aches and gets worse throughout the day, that could be a sign of a pelvic floor disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Find out the 13 things your vagina is trying to tell you.)
You can’t control your bowels
racorn/ShutterstockA leaky stool, or fecal incontinence, may be embarrassing but it’s the second most common type of pelvic floor disorder, according to Columbia University Medical Center. Sometimes it’s caused by another type of condition like Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or even diabetes and can affect both men and women, but often it becomes a problem in otherwise healthy women post-menopause, says Dr. Ferrante. The pelvic floor muscles relax and contract in a coordinated way to help you eliminate stool—when those muscles malfunction, you may find yourself racing for the bathroom.
Your vagina has a mysterious bulge
If you suddenly feel a very noticeable bulge or like there’s something in your vagina, don’t worry, it’s probably not a tumor and is more likely vaginal prolapse. “People can see the bulge if they look, it’s vaginal tissue that comes out of the vagina; sometimes it’s gradual and sometimes it’s all of a sudden after a bad cough,” says Dr. Ferrante. “Other women say they feel like they’re sitting on an egg, or if it’s really big, a grapefruit that makes it hard to walk or sit down.” Prolapse is most common in women who have given birth, particularly early in the postpartum stage, and is basically a result of weak pelvic muscles and supporting tissues that cause things to fall out of place.
Sex is painful
Sex should feel good, not hurt, so if you experience pain or muscle spasms while doing the deed, you could have a pelvic floor disorder. “Spasms in the pelvic muscles can cause pain during intercourse and some patients can’t have sex because of the pain,” says Dr. Ferrante. (These are 11 more reasons why sex might be painful.)
You have trouble peeing
Andrey_Popov/ShutterstockIf you have difficulty urinating or feel like you can’t fully empty your bladder no matter how hard you try, it could be a urinary tract infection but it could also be a pelvic floor disorder, especially if it persists.
Usually, your pelvic floor muscles relax and contract in just the right way at just the right time to let you easily empty your bowels. But, if you’re constantly straining to go, it could be a sign of a pelvic floor disorder.
“Obesity can make pelvic floor issues worse because of all the pressure being put on the muscles,” says Dr. Ferrante. In fact, a higher body mass index (BMI) was associated with a greater chance of having one or more pelvic floor disorders, according to a recent analysis published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
You have a lung disorder
Anything that causes frequent coughing such as asthma, lung cancer, or even heavy smoking can lead to a pelvic floor disorder because of the strain it puts on the pelvic floor, says Dr. Ferrante.