Pelvic Floor Disorders: Research Activities and Scientific Advances

The NICHD supports a broad portfolio of research related to the etiology, treatment, and prevention of Pelvic Floor Disorders (PFDs). Brief descriptions of this research are included below.

Institute Activities and Advances

The NICHD has expanded its funding of research on PFDs, including pelvic organ prolapse and urinary and fecal incontinence. A lot of this research is supported through the Pelvic Floor Disorders Network (PFDN), which the NICHD established in 2001 to encourage collaborative research on PFDs and to improve patient care. The PFDN is currently supported through the Gynecological Health and Disease Branch (GHDB).

PFDN research has advanced understanding of the prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors for PFDs and has informed clinicians regarding diagnosis and treatment modalities. For example:

  • The PFDN’s Anticholinergic vs. Botox Comparison Study (ABC) was a double-blind, double-placebo-controlled randomized trial that provided much-needed data comparing these two commonly prescribed treatments for urgency urinary incontinence. The trial found that the medications equally reduced the frequency of daily urinary incontinence but had different side effect profiles ( PMID: 23036134).
  • A PFDN study of colpocleisis, a surgical procedure used in older women to treat vaginal prolapse, found that the procedure also helped to eliminate or reduce bothersome bowel symptoms (PMID: 19960182).
  • PF DN research validated two numerical scales, originally developed for men who had undergone hernia surgery, for evaluating the effects of surgery on pain and physical activities in women who had undergone surgery for pelvic organ prolapse (PMID: 22777367 and PMID: 22777368).
  • Using National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, the PFDN provided, for the first time, national prevalence estimates of symptomatic PFDs in women in the United States.
  • The Childbirth and Pelvic Symptoms (CAPS) study, a prospective cohort study, found that women with clinically recognized anal sphincter tears were more than twice as likely to report postpartum fecal incontinence as were women without these sphincter tears. It also found that cesarean delivery before labor is not entirely protective against PFDs.
  • The Ambulatory Treatments for Leakage Associated with Stress (ATLAS) study, a randomized controlled trial of nonsurgical treatment for stress urinary incontinence, provided information on the relative efficacy of (and satisfaction with) 1) pessaries, or 2) training and exercise of the pelvic floor muscles, or 3) the two treatments combined.
  • Results from the Colpopexy and Urinary Reduction Efforts (CARE) and Outcomes Following Vaginal Prolapse Repair and Mid-Urethral Sling (OPUS) studies showed that adding a procedure used to treat stress incontinence at the time of surgery for pelvic organ prolapse in women without symptoms of stress incontinence can help to prevent stress incontinence after surgery, without increasing risk.

Current network studies are examining the effectiveness of both surgical and nonsurgical interventions for PFDs, including pharmacological agents, the short- and long-term anatomical or functional outcomes of interventions, and preventive strategies.

Other GHDB -supported researchers recently estimated the number of women who will undergo surgery for PFDs in the future, based on 2006 –2007 hospitalization data and overall population data from the U.S. Census. They predicted that the number of surgical patients for PFDs is expected to increase by 47%--from about 210,000 in 2010 to 310,000 by 2050. These data demonstrate an urgent need to develop effective, low-cost interventions for PFDs to minimize the public health burden (PMID: 21600549).

Current GHDB -supported research also includes studies of:


  • The basic mechanisms of pelvic floor support and of pregnancy- and childbirth-related pelvic floor injury
  • Genetic determinants affecting predisposition to pelvic organ prolapse
  • How physical activity affects PFDs
  • Factors associated with making decisions about PFD treatment
  • Animal models of stem-cell homing for treatment of PFDs
  • Minimally invasive techniques for surgical repair of vaginal prolapse
  • Patient-reported outcome measures

Reducing and eliminating obstetric fistula in women who live in developing countries is also an active area of NICHD research. The Institute issued the following program announcements to invite research projects on this topic:

Other Activities and Advances

The NICHD-funded Women’s Reproductive Health Research (WRHR) Career Development Program provides an opportunity for obstetrician/gynecologists (OB/GYNs) who recently completed postgraduate clinical training to further their education and experience in basic, translational, and clinical research. WRHR scholars represent a diverse group of physician-scientists from several subspecialties and emerging areas in OB/GYN; they pursue a broad range of basic science, translational, and clinical research topics and are often appointed to faculty positions. The Program's emphasis is on research relevant to OB/GYN and its subspecialties and related fields, including maternal-fetal medicine, gynecologic oncology, reproductive endocrinology, infertility, and adolescent gynecology and urogynecology.

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