It can take several months of routine bowel or urinary medications and pelvic floor physical therapy before symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction start to improve. The most important part of treatment is to not give up. Forgetting to take your medications every day will cause your symptoms to continue and possibly get worse. Also, skipping physical therapy appointments or not practicing exercises can slow healing.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can be diagnosed by history and physical exam, though it is more accurately graded by imaging. Historically, fluoroscopy with defecography and cystography were used, though modern imaging allows the usage of MRI to complement and sometimes replace fluoroscopic assessment of the disorder, allowing for less radiation exposure and increased patient comfort, though an enema is required the evening before the procedure. Instead of contrast, ultrasound gel is used during the procedure with MRI. Both methods assess the pelvic floor at rest and maximum strain using coronal and sagittal views. When grading individual organ prolapse, the rectum, bladder and uterus are individually assessed, with prolapse of the rectum referred to as a rectocele, bladder prolapse through the anterior vaginal wall a cystocele, and small bowel an enterocele.
Once patients with pelvic floor constipation have these basic tools, they can begin retraining the pelvic floor muscles with biofeedback. Based on the principle of operant conditioning, biofeedback provides auditory and visual feedback to help retrain the pelvic floor and relax the anal sphincter. Biofeedback training is the treatment of choice for medically refractory pelvic floor constipation, with some studies showing improvement in more than 70 percent of patients. Patients also learn to identify internal sensations associated with relaxation and long-term skills and exercises for use at home.
The pelvic floor is a combination of multiple muscles with ligamentous attachments creating a dome-shaped diaphragm across the boney pelvic outlet. This complex of muscles spans from the pubis (anterior) to the sacrum/coccyx (posterior) and bilateral to the ischial tuberosities. The bulk of the pelvic musculature is the levator ani, composed of the puborectalis, pubococcygeus, and iliococcygeus. The puborectalis wraps as a sling around the anorectal junction accentuating the anorectal angle during contraction and is a primary contributor to fecal continence. Elevation and support of the pelvic organs are associated with the pubococcygeus and the iliococcygeus. The pubococcygeus is the most medial component which separates, fashioning the levator hiatus with openings for the urethra, vagina (females), and anus. The bulbospongiosus and ischiocavernosus muscles are the primary contributors to the superficial portion of the anterior pelvic floor. The more superficial musculature of the posterior pelvic floor constitutes the external anal sphincter. The transverse perineal muscles cross the mid-portion of the superficial aspect of the pelvic floor and coalesce with the bulbospongiosus muscles and external anal sphincter as the perineal body.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is a common condition where you’re unable to correctly relax and coordinate the muscles in your pelvic floor to urinate or to have a bowel movement. If you’re a woman, you may also feel pain during sex, and if you’re a man you may have problems having or keeping an erection (erectile dysfunction or ED). Your pelvic floor is a group of muscles found in the floor (the base) of your pelvis (the bottom of your torso).
Your pelvic floor is the group of muscles and ligaments in your pelvic region. The pelvic floor acts like a sling to support the organs in your pelvis — including the bladder, rectum, and uterus or prostate. Contracting and relaxing these muscles allows you to control your bowel movements, urination, and, for women particularly, sexual intercourse.
In order for the processes of urination and defecation to go smoothly, the various muscles within the pelvis need to act in a coordinated manner. In some cases, the muscles contract when they should be relaxing, or the muscles do not relax sufficiently to facilitate coordinated movement. Problems with the pelvic floor muscles can lead to urinary difficulties and bowel dysfunction. PFD is experienced by both men and women.
As many as 50 percent of people with chronic constipation have pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) — impaired relaxation and coordination of pelvic floor and abdominal muscles during evacuation. Straining, hard or thin stools, and a feeling of incomplete elimination are common signs and symptoms. But because slow transit constipation and functional constipation can overlap with PFD, some patients may also present with other signs and symptoms, such as a long time between bowel movements and abdominal pain.
When mechanical, anatomic, and disease- and diet-related causes of constipation have been ruled out, clinical suspicion should be raised to the possibility that PFD is causing or contributing to constipation. A focused history and digital examination are key components in diagnosing PFD. The diagnosis can be confirmed by anorectal manometry with balloon expulsion and, in some cases, traditional proctography or dynamic magnetic resonance imaging defecography to visualize pathologic pelvic floor motion, sphincter anatomy and greater detail of surrounding structures.
Nicole Davis is a writer based in Madison, WI, a personal trainer, and a group fitness instructor whose goal is to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. When she’s not working out with her husband or chasing around her young daughter, she’s watching crime TV shows or making sourdough bread from scratch. Find her on Instagram for fitness tidbits, #momlife and more.