It is not commonly known that Physiotherapists can specialise in problems of the pelvic floor and bladder. This may be a small area of Physio, but it can make a huge difference to those who are struggling with a little (or a lot of) leakage and a loss of continence. This problem can seriously impact on quality of life for many women, and some men too.
The more accurate term for the service is Pelvic Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapist, however, Women’s Health Physiotherapist (WH Physio) is still in wide use so will also be used here. Specialist Physiotherapists specifically deal with pelvic floor issues, but also with associated problems of prolapse and weakened abdominal muscles post-childbirth. A WH Physio can also look at patterns of drinking and toilet visits and help make practical changes to reduce symptoms of urgency. WH Physios also specialise in the ante- and post-natal period, and can help with pregnancy related back, hip and pelvis pain. Then in the postnatal period we can help you return to function if abdominal muscles have split during pregnancy or if you have any aches and pains following childbirth, or repetitive strains from looking after your new baby.
‘Women’s’ health can be misleading, because everyone has a pelvic floor. Continence issues due to a weakened pelvic floor affect one in three women and one in ten men – as it affects many women after childbirth it is more of a women’s problem. A series of simple exercises and some straightforward lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. The exercises, as in most cases, do not work overnight and ask at least 3 months of commitment 3 times a day from you. However, each set should only take a couple of minutes and can be done anywhere (I do mine on the bus!) so it is just a case of remembering or setting and alarm on your phone. Compared to the alternatives – either a worsening problem that needs to be dealt with by using more and more pads, increasing strength medication; or even surgery which has been the subject of controversy recently – a few moments of your day is really a small price to pay.
Image from Advanced Uro-Gynaecology for Physiotherapists: Michelle Lyons
Unfortunately, it has been found that one third of women with weakened pelvic floor are doing the exercises incorrectly and could make their problems worse. Assessment of the pelvic floor by a specialist Women’s Health Physiotherapist can help you ensure you are performing the exercises correctly. You can also be taught different ways to check for yourself that you are doing it right once this has been established. When the exercises are done correctly with other lifestyle changes alongside them, they can be incredibly effective and give you a fantastic way to look after yourself and help prevent any problems arising in future. There are plenty of descriptions of pelvic floor exercise programmes online, however, nothing can match having this assessed individually, especially if you are having persistent problems.
Much rarer than a weakened pelvic floor is a pelvic floor which goes into spasm, due to an imbalance of different fibres of the muscles. This can be incredibly painful, so it important to learn how to completely relax the pelvic floor as well as how to contract it effectively and to be able to do both under conscious control.
In Pilates we talk about the ‘centre’ – this comprises the deep abdominal muscles which wrap around the abdomen like a corset, the diaphragm at the top and the pelvic floor at the bottom. These 3 sets of muscles which form a ‘cylinder’ work together to provide active support for the low back, mid back and pelvis. If you learn to engage the pelvic floor correctly this will lead to the deep abdominals switching on at the same time (keep breathing deep and wide into the ribcage to get the full cylinder working together!). Unfortunately it doesn’t work the other way – if you contract the deep abdominal muscles, the pelvic floor does not switch on automatically.
In any Pilates exercise where you lift up your head, this can push the abdominal contents down on the pelvic floor, which can put undue stress on the pelvic floor, especially when adding in the additional work on the abdominal muscles. It is necessary with any head up position to engage the pelvic floor before performing the lift of head and shoulders; this prevents any downwards pressure on the pelvic floor and helps it to strengthen and improve control at the same time. I bet you’ve never been told to pre-contract your pelvic floor before lifting something heavy, but you want to do that too for the same reason!
There is research that Pilates is effective for those with mild continence issues as it teaches you to contract your pelvic floor effectively and this carries over into everyday life.
So, next time you’re in your Pilates class and the instructor advises you to think about engaging through the pelvic floor, really add this into the exercise! You will be making a big difference to helping your pelvic floor work effectively as part of the whole core system.
If you are not sure if you are contracting your pelvic floor correctly, please come and see me in the clinic to check this for you as well as provide you with a personalised programme and advice.