When (or if!) we think about our pelvic floor, what comes to mind?
- pelvic exercises/kegels?
- leaky floor?
- tena lady?
- problems during sex?
Are you in touch with yours, or does the whole subject leave you feeling uncomfortable? Most of us are vaguely aware that we should be doing something to ensure we have a healthy pelvic floor, but we’re not quite sure what!
The female pelvis is generally broader than the male; this means the pelvic floor muscles must span a greater area… and they have to support larger organs. For example, the uterus – which is normally around the size of an orange – grows during pregnancy to the size of a watermelon, and pushes all the other organs and the muscles of the abdomen aside to make room! The normally walnut-sized prostate gland in males is much smaller so less room is needed in the healthy pelvis and abdominal cavity.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can mean different things for different people, but usually we’re told that a “weak” pelvic floor is the culprit; if your muscles aren’t strong enough, they won’t be able to support the weight of your internal organs, growing uterus, full bladder or bowel, potentially causing incontinence or a prolapse – a slipping down or forward – of organs.Traditionally, we’re told to perform clenching and strengthening exercises to build enough support to prevent this from happening.
But what if your muscles are too strong or tight? Our pelvic floor muscles need to be able to contract, relax and move freely in order for us to be able to control going to the toilet, to be sexually active, to give birth – even to walk and breathe properly!
Think of your abdomen as a cylinder:
- the “lid” is your diaphragm, a large dome-shaped sheet of muscle
- the “base” is your pelvic floor
- the “walls” consist of the deep muscles of your abdomen
Other muscles and tissues layer on top of these to create an amazing support and movement system for your torso and pelvis, connecting to our arms, legs and head.
- When we inhale, the diaphragm pulls downwards to allow the lungs to inflate and the rib cage to open and lift; as the abdomen is – or should be! – a closed system, this increases pressure in the abdominal cavity which in turn causes the pelvic floor to stretch, much like a balloon.
- When we exhale, the diaphragm moves upwards, compressing the air out of our lungs; the rib cage draws down to assist. This creates negative pressure in the abdomen, so like a balloon having the air sucked out of it, the pelvic floor moves upwards.
We have evolved this wonderful, complex system over millions of years and when all the component parts are healthy, strong and flexible it works beautifully… but what if one part of the system doesn’t work so well? We’ll be discussing that in part 2.