Building Strength from the “Floor” Up

Better posture. Better sex. Better poop?

If these happen to be part of your New Year’s resolutions (and if they aren’t, they should be), did you realize that working on your pelvic floor can help improve all three of these areas? If your answer is no, or if you’re wondering what the heck is my pelvic floor, then keep reading! My good friend Dr. Nidhi Patel PT, DPT, is an Athens native and UGA alumna. Now she works for the University of Georgia’s Health Center and is very passionate about pelvic floor physical therapy. She has talked my ear off about the importance of maintaining a strong pelvic floor, so I’ve asked her to share some wisdom on the topic.

A healthy foundation starts with a strong floor

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Hammock. Photo credit: Michelle Dookwah.

So what’s the importance of maintaining a strong pelvic floor? The pelvic floor is the layer of muscles that span the bottom of the pelvis, supporting the pelvic organs – in women, those would be the bladder, bowel, and uterus, and in men, just the bladder and the bowel. “Think of your pelvic floor like a hammock,” says Dr. Patel, “where one end is connected to the pubic bone and the other at your tailbone – a taut hammock equals nice tight muscles, a weak hammock means loose muscles.” In addition to literally holding up your pelvic organs, these muscles are required for other functions as well. Dr. Patel explains, “Just remember the 3 S’s of pelvic floor function – Support, Sexual function, and Sphincteric control.” If I had a dollar for every time Nidhi has talked to me about pelvic floor health and constipation, I’d be a millionaire with the most regular bowel movements! From its name alone, it may sound like strengthening your pelvic floor will only affect things in the pelvic region, but that’s far from the truth. Everything in the body is interconnected somehow, and the same goes for the pelvic floor.

The pelvic floor – way more than just Kegels

Most people have heard of pelvic floor muscles in relation to Kegel exercises. Kegels are often touted as easy exercises to tighten the pelvic floor muscles in women, and, in turn, provide better control of the vaginal wall muscles. They’re so discreet and simple that we’re often told to just do them anytime and anywhere – in the car at a red light or while doing the dishes. I could even be doing them right now, as I write this very sentence! But there’s so much more to strengthening the pelvic floor than just doing Kegels – and in some cases, Kegels may do more harm than good. That’s why it’s important to see a professional who can help provide you with information on what exercises best suit the needs of your pelvic floor.

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Deep central stability system diagram. Photo Credit: Ann Wendal Used with Permission.

The pelvic floor is part of the ”4 deep core muscles”. These include the diaphragm (under your lungs), the pelvic floor (in the pelvis), the transverse abdominis (surrounding your spine), and the multifidi (back muscles). These all work together to give you what’s called optimal core stabilization. Correct alignment of your core, think “ribs over pelvis”, is an important aspect of proper posture.

The diaphragm and pelvic floor should be working in sync. “You can picture it like an umbrella, with things working optimally in all directions,” says Dr. Patel “inhaling expands the diaphragm, like opening the umbrella, which then pushes down on the pelvic floor.”  When these muscles aren’t able to work in conjunction any more, think after a surgery, postpartum, or after a trauma – such as sexual abuse – these muscles may need to learn how to communicate and work in sync with each other again.

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Core Activation GIF. Photo Credit: Jenny Burrell Used with permission.

Muscles not communicating? Maybe it’s time to talk to your PT

Signs of pelvic floor dysfunction include symptoms like leaking pee when you laugh or cough (common amongst postpartum women), lower back pain, urinary urgency or frequency, incomplete bladder voiding, pain with sex, constipation, or pain in your tailbone when you sit! These symptoms are common to both women AND men, but they don’t necessarily have to be something you just have to live with.

Do these symptoms sound familiar to you? If so, it’s time to visit a pelvic floor specialist. Pelvic floor physical therapy can teach your  muscles to talk to each other again and help regain proper function of the pelvic floor.

Want to learn more about your floor and core? Come check out this week’s Athens Science Café with Dr. Nidhi Patel and Dr. Teresa Morneault PT, DPT, WCS from the University of Georgia Health Center at Little Kings Shuffle Club this Thursday, January 24th at 7pm.

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About the Author

IMG_0452 (6) Michelle Dookwah currently serves as an Assistant Editor for Athens Science Observer and is a graduate student at the University of Georgia Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, where she studies rare neurological disorders using patient stem cells. She’s pretty passionate about science and science communication. However, she also enjoys numerous activities in her free time, including reading, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, hiking, baking, and obsessing over her labradoodle named Goose! More from Michelle Dookwah.