Andrew Siegel MD 9/10/2016
Image above: William Smellie (1697-1763): A Set of Anatomical Tables with Explanations and an Abridgement of the Practice of Midwifery, 1754.
The female bony pelvis provides the infrastructure to support the pelvic organs and to allow childbirth. Adequate “closure” is needed for pelvic organ support, yet sufficient “opening” is necessary to permit vaginal delivery. The female pelvis evolved as a compromise between these two important, but opposing functions. Unfortunately, the process of childbirth has the potential for damaging the “closure” mechanism of the pelvis, which can result in permanent childbirth injuries that are often suffered in silence.
Obscured in the magic of delivering a human being through the birth canal are the lasting physical effects that can occur from the birth process. The average birth weight of a newborn is 7.5 pounds, a considerable load to push (and pull) through the vaginal canal. It is a popular misconception that pelvic anatomy rapidly returns to its pre-pregnancy status. Some women do come through the process relatively unscathed with minimal physical changes, whereas others sustain significant pelvic trauma from the process. Potential long-term ramifications may include the following: urinary and fecal incontinence (leakage); vaginal laxity (looseness); pelvic organ prolapse (descent of one or more of the pelvic organs into the vaginal space and at times outside the vaginal opening); vaginal pain with sexual intercourse; and chronic back pain.
The risk factors for childbirth injuries are larger babies, prolonged labor, narrow vaginal anatomy and the need for tools to help deliver the baby, e.g., forceps. Vaginal injuries may involve lacerations, pelvic bone fractures, pelvic floor muscle tears, etc. Although vaginal delivery is the ultimate traumatic event, pregnancy and labor are important factors as well. Accompanying pregnancy is maternal weight gain, a change in body posture, hormonal changes and the pressure of a growing uterus and fetal weight. Labor is an appropriate term for the tough work a mother has to do to push out a baby’s head. The more hours spent pushing and straining, the greater the potential trauma to pelvic anatomy. During the process of vaginal delivery, the soft tissues of the pelvis get “crushed” in the “vise” between the baby’s bony skull and the mother’s bony pelvis. The pelvic muscles and connective tissues are frequently stretched, if not torn, from their attachments to the pubic bone and pelvic sidewalls, and the nerves to the pelvic floor are often equally affected. Although more than half of women who deliver vaginally sustain small tears, only 10% or so suffer a severe pelvic muscle tear or pelvic bone fracture.
The most extreme form of birth trauma is obstetric fistula, a not uncommon, horrific problem often occurring in poverty-stricken countries where pregnant women have poor access to obstetric care. It happens after enduring days of “obstructed” labor, with the baby’s head persistently pushing against the mother’s pelvic bones during contractions. This prevents pelvic blood flow and causes tissue death, resulting in a hole called a “fistula” between the vagina and the bladder and/or vagina and rectum. When birth finally occurs, the baby is often stillborn. The long-term consequences for the mother are severe urinary and bowel incontinence, shame and social isolation.
The human body has a remarkable ability to heal and repair itself, and given time, nature and patience, many women will recover their anatomy and function. However, a subset of women will have lasting effects from birth trauma, referred to by the term pelvic floor dysfunction. This can result in urinary or bowel leakage with sneezing, coughing and exertion, pooching of one or more of the pelvic organs into the vaginal canal and at times beyond, a loose vagina that may adversely affect sexual relations and pelvic pain with sexual intercourse.
What to do to prepare?
- Prenatal education: Knowledge is power–the more you know about the expectations of the pregnancy and childbirth process, the better prepared you will be.
- Maintain a healthy weight and general fitness: A healthy lifestyle will go a long way in making the process of pregnancy, labor and delivery as easy as possible.
- Pelvic floor muscle exercises (Kegels) starting prenatally: Realistically, this will not prevent pelvic floor issues in everyone, since obstetrical trauma can and will give rise to problems whether the pelvic muscles are fit or not! However, even if a pelvic exercise regimen does not prevent all forms of pelvic floor dysfunction, it will certainly have a positive impact, lessening the degree of the dysfunction and accelerating the healing process. Furthermore, mastering such exercises before pregnancy will make carrying the pregnancy easier and will facilitate labor and delivery and the effortless resumption of the exercises in the post-partum period, as the exercises were learned under ideal circumstances, prior to the injury.
Wishing you the best of health,
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Author of THE KEGEL FIX: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health– and MALE PELVIC FITNESS: Optimizing Sexual & Urinary Health available on Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, B&N Nook and Kobo; paperback edition available at http://www.TheKegelFix.com
Author page on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Siegel/e/B004W7IM48
Trailer for The Kegel Fix: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHZxoiQb1Cc
Co-creator of the comprehensive, interactive, FDA-registered Private Gym/PelvicRx, a male pelvic floor muscle training program built upon the foundational work of renowned Dr. Arnold Kegel. The program empowers men to increase their pelvic floor muscle strength, tone, and endurance. Combining the proven effectiveness of Kegel exercises with the use of resistance weights, this program helps to improve sexual function and to prevent urinary incontinence: www.PrivateGym.com or Amazon.
In the works is the female PelvicRx DVD pelvic floor muscle training for women.
Pelvic Rx can be obtained at http://www.UrologyHealthStore.com, an online store home to quality urology products for men and women. Use promo code “UROLOGY10” at checkout for 10% discount.
Tags: Andrew Siegel MD, childbirth injuries, fecal incontinence, obstetric fistula, painful intercourse, pelvic floor muscle training, pelvic organ prolapse, prenatal education, sexual dysfunction, urinary incontinence, vaginal laxity