What Are the Pelvic Floor Muscles?
The pelvic floor muscles include the levator ani group, the coccygeus and associated connective tissues that extend from the pubic bone to the tail bone and form what may be thought of as the hammock beneath the pelvis. They extend into and form a part of the urinary and anal sphincters. Their primary function is to provide support for the bladder, uterus, intestines, vagina and other pelvic organs. In women, they help to guide the fetus through the pelvic girdle, the irregular bony structure that connects the spine to the femurs or upper leg bones. The space enclosed by the girdle is referred to as the pelvic cavity. It is through this cavity that the head of the infant must pass in order to reach the birth canal or vagina. In both men and women, the pelvic floor muscles are responsible for urinary and rectal continence. If they become weakened or injured due to childbirth, obesity, surgery or other occurrences, urinary incontinence and/or organ prolapse can occur. Urinary incontinence is a common problem for both men and women. Special exercises can be done to strengthen the muscle groups and improve continence. Weight loss is sometimes recommended, along with dietary or lifestyle changes.
For example, caffeine and alcohol consumption lead to a frequent need to urinate. Patients are often advised to avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. Organ prolapse is less common. It occurs when the uterus, vagina, bladder or rectum protrude into or outside of the vagina. In addition to decreased muscle strength, the causes of prolapse include age and family history. Hormonal status may contribute to the development of prolapse. For example, as a woman nears or passes through menopause, she has a higher risk of developing prolapse. Prolapse and severe urinary incontinence may require surgery to repair or reconnect muscle fibers. Maintaining or improving the strength of the pelvic floor muscles may prevent the need for surgery. The exercises recommended to strengthen the muscle groups are referred to as Kegel exercises. They are named for a world-renowned obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr Arnold Kegel. He was the first to suggest that exercise could improve muscle strength in the area and the first to develop exercise equipment designed specifically for that purpose. Dr Kegel advocated the exercises to improve urinary incontinence, particularly when urine leakage was brought on by stress, such as laughing, coughing or running. Many women suffer from this kind of urine leakage. The pelvic floor muscles can be difficult to identify and isolate. Special devices such as vaginal cones help to ensure that the proper pelvic muscle is being worked and the exercise is being done correctly.