Pelvic Floor Disorders (PFDs)
A PFD occurs when the muscles or connective tissues of the pelvic area weaken or are injured. The most common PFDs are urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse. PFDs are more common among older women.
NICHD supports and conducts research on PFDs. For example, NICHD-supported studies evaluate therapies and improve ways to measure treatment outcomes and patient satisfaction.
About Pelvic Floor Disorders (PFDs)
What is the pelvic floor?
The “pelvic floor” is the group of muscles that form a sling or hammock across the floor of the pelvis. Together with surrounding tissues, these muscles hold the pelvic organs in place so they can function correctly. The pelvic organs include the bladder, urethra, intestines, and rectum. A woman’s pelvic organs also include the uterus, cervix, and vagina.1
What is a PFD?
A PFD occurs when the pelvic muscles and connective tissue weaken or are injured. The most common types of PFDs are the following:
- Pelvic organ prolapse. “Prolapse” happens in women when the pelvic muscles and tissue can no longer support one or more pelvic organs, causing them to drop or press into the vagina. For instance, in uterine prolapse, the cervix and uterus can descend into the vagina and may even come out of the vaginal opening. In vaginal prolapse, the top of the vagina loses support and can drop toward or through the vaginal opening. Prolapse also can cause a kink in the urethra, the tube that brings urine from the bladder to the outside of the body.
- Bladder problems. Urinary symptoms can include urinating too often in the day or night, strong urgency to urinate, or urinary leakage. The leaking of urine, a problem called urinary incontinence, can occur in women or men. This leakage may occur as a result of an exertion (like a cough or sneeze) or other factors involving the bladder muscles. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) offers information about different types of bladder control problems, including these common types:
- Stress incontinence
- Urge or urgency incontinence (also called overactive bladder)
- Overflow incontinence
Bowel control problems. The leaking of liquid or solid stool from the rectum, called fecal incontinence, can occur in women and men. It can result from damage to or weakening of the anal sphincter, the ring of muscles that keeps the anus closed, or from other causes. NIDDK also offers information on fecal incontinence.
What are the symptoms of pelvic floor disorders (PFDs)?
- Feel heaviness, fullness, pulling, or aching in the vagina that gets worse by the end of the day or is related to a bowel movement
- See or feel a “bulge” or “something coming out” of the vagina
- Have difficulty starting to urinate or emptying the bladder completely
- Leak urine when coughing, laughing, or exercising
- Feel an urgent or frequent need to urinate
- Feel pain while urinating
- Leak stool or have difficulty controlling gas
- Have constipation
- Have difficulty making it to the bathroom in time
Some women with pelvic floor problems do not have symptoms at first.1 Many women are reluctant to tell their healthcare provider about symptoms because they may feel embarrassed.1 In addition, many women think that problems with bladder control are normal and live with their symptoms.3 However, bladder control problems are treatable, and these treatments can help women with pelvic floor problems.
What causes pelvic floor disorders (PFDs)?
The complete picture about what contributes to the development of pelvic floor problems is not clear and is quite complex, but the following conditions are being studied as risk factors for the development of PFDs:
- Childbirth. Pregnancy, childbirth, and their link to pelvic floor problems have been an active area of research, but the connection is not clear. A recent NICHD-funded study showed that, among first-time mothers, mode of delivery (such as vaginal versus surgical) was linked to risk for PFDs. In some studies, the risk increases with the number of children a woman has delivered.1 The risk may be greater if forceps or a vacuum device is used during delivery.2 However, because pelvic problems also affect women who have never been pregnant, and because delivering via cesarean section only reduces but does not eliminate the risk of pelvic floor problems, the relationship among pregnancy, childbirth, and PFDs remains unclear.2
- Factors that put pressure on the pelvic floor. These factors include overweight or obesity, chronic constipation or chronic straining to have a bowel movement, heavy lifting, and chronic coughing from smoking or health problems.1,3,4
- Getting older. The pelvic floor muscles can weaken as women age and during menopause.4
- Having weaker tissues. Genes influence the strength of a woman’s bones, muscles, and connective tissues. Some women are born with conditions that affect the strength of connective tissues, and they are more likely to have pelvic organ prolapse.2
- Surgery. Previous hysterectomy and prior surgery to correct prolapse are associated with higher risks of PFDs.1
Race. Certain groups of women, such as white or Latina women, appear to be at higher risks for some forms of PFDs.2
How are pelvic floor disorders (PFDs) diagnosed?
A healthcare provider may be able to diagnose a PFD with a physical exam. In some cases, a woman’s healthcare provider will see or feel a bulge during a routine pelvic exam that suggests a prolapse. In other cases, a woman may see her doctor about symptoms she is experiencing, such as problems with bladder or bowel control. In addition to a physical exam, a doctor also will ask about medical history, including whether a woman has been pregnant, has had surgery, and takes any medicines.1
Depending on the findings from the exam or the severity of the symptoms, a healthcare provider may do tests. Some tests used to help with the diagnosis or with treatment planning include:
Bladder control problems
- Cystoscopy. This test examines the insides of the bladder to look for problems, such as bladder stones, tumors, or inflammation.1
- Urinalysis. This urine test can detect if you have a bladder infection, kidney problems, or diabetes.2
- Urodynamics. This test is used to evaluate how the bladder and urethra are working.2 It can help determine the plan for surgery to treat certain forms of bladder control problems.1
- Anal manometry. This test evaluates the strength of the anal sphincter muscles.
- Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. This procedure examines the inside of the colon or the sigmoid (the part of the bowel near the rectum) to look for signs of disease or inflammation that may be causing symptoms.
- Dynamic defecography. This test is used to evaluate the pelvic floor and rectum while the patient is having a bowel movement.
How are pelvic floor disorders (PFDs) treated?
Treatment can often help when symptoms are bothersome or restrict a woman’s activities.1,2 Some types of treatments include the following. You can also download or link to our Pelvic Floor Disorders and Common Treatments infographic.