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.
A defecating proctogram is a test where you’re given an enema of a thick liquid that can be seen with an X-ray. Your provider will use a special video X-ray to record the movement of your muscles as you attempt to push the liquid out of the rectum. This will help to show how well you are able to pass a bowel movement or any other causes for pelvic floor dysfunction. This test is not painful.
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.
Patients may meet individually with a dedicated nurse educator who provides a focused session on bowel management techniques. Central to the process is a daily regimen that combines an evening dose of fiber supplement with a morning routine of mild physical activity; a hot, preferably caffeinated beverage; and, possibly, a fiber cereal followed by another cup of a hot beverage — all within 45 minutes of waking. This routine augments early morning high-amplitude peristaltic contractions by incorporating multiple colon stimulators.
Hip bridges: Engage your abdominals and pelvic floor before you start to bridge up, then bring the hipbones up to the sky. Then hollow out even more and really engage the pelvic floor. Then slowly lower your back to the mat, starting with your upper back, middle back, then lower back. Once you reach the mat, you can release your pelvic floor, and then re-engage as you do this move again.
Biofeedback: This is the most common treatment, done with the help of a physical therapist. Biofeedback is not painful, and helps over 75% of people with pelvic floor dysfunction. Your physical therapist might use biofeedback in different ways to retrain your muscles. For example, they may use special sensors and video to monitor the pelvic floor muscles as you try to relax or clench them. Your therapist then gives you feedback and works with you to improve your muscle coordination.
For internal massage, your PT may insert a finger into the vagina or rectum and massage the muscles and connective tissue directly. A frequently used technique is “Thiele stripping,” in which your therapist finds a trigger point by feeling a twitch in the muscle underneath, exercising it using a circular motion, and then putting pressure on it to help relax it, repeating the process until the muscle starts to release. Internal massage can also help release nerves. Sometimes, anesthetics can be injected into these trigger points. PTs may do this in a few states, but in most states, a doctor or nurse must administer injections.
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.
Although many centers are familiar with retraining techniques to improve pelvic floor dysfunction, few have the multidisciplinary expertise to teach patients with constipation how to appropriately coordinate abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during defecation, and how to use bowel management techniques, along with behavior modification, to relieve symptoms. Because pelvic floor dysfunction can be associated with psychological, sexual or physical abuse and other life stressors, psychological counseling is often included in the evaluation process.
Pelvic floor dysfunction may include any of a group of clinical conditions that includes urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, sensory and emptying abnormalities of the lower urinary tract, defecatory dysfunction, sexual dysfunction and several chronic pain syndromes, including vulvodynia in women and chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CP/CPPS) in men. The three most common and definable conditions encountered clinically are urinary incontinence, anal incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
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.
You’ve likely already heard of kegels, the most common method for strengthening the pelvic floor. But there are plenty of additional exercises you can try to help train your pelvic floor. Watch this video to see yoga and fitness expert Kristin McGee (who recently gave birth to twins!) demonstrate three simple yet effective moves for strengthening your pelvic floor.