For the next few weeks, I plan to re-blog/update every Thursday a previous post originally written by me when working in Greenville, SC for the Proaxis Pelvic PT blog (http://proaxispelvicpt.wordpress.com), in hopes of building a comprehensive library of posts at jessicarealept.com. Selfishly- I like having them all in one place since I often refer patients who come to see me in Atlanta for pelvic PT to my old posts to read as “homework.”
That being said, today’s post is one published a while back here, originally titled, “Yes, you have incontinence. No, I do not necessarily want you to do Kegel exercises.” It has been modified/updated for you today 🙂 Enjoy!
Recently, I was fortunate to evaluate a nice middle-aged woman referred to me by her urogynecologist for urinary incontinence. When we first sat down, she looked at me and said, “I’m not sure why I am here. My doctor specifically told me that I have a strong pelvic floor. I really don’t think you can help me.” I smiled. I hear this same thought process on a weekly basis (See my previous article on common misconceptions of pelvic physical therapy) You see, at some point the world became convinced that from a musculoskeletal perspective, stress urinary leakage is always due to a weak muscle. And the best way to fix a failed muscle is to strengthen, strengthen, strengthen. But, if that’s the case, then why do I have so many patients walking into my office telling me that they have done “Kegel” exercises and still leak? Why would a patient like the one above have a “strong” pelvic floor that cannot hold back urine? Why is urinary leakage associated with low back pain and pelvic pain- disorders that we know can often include tight and irritated pelvic floor muscles?
Now, as a caveat to this article, let me say now that it is sometimes totally appropriate for a person to start a pelvic floor strengthening program. In fact, the person with a truly weak, overstretched, poorly-timing pelvic floor will likely be prescribed a strengthening program. With that being said, the truth is that the majority of patients referred to my clinic for evaluation of urinary incontinence are not issued a traditional kegel exercise program. My colleagues and I actually tend to be surprised when we evaluate a new patient who truly needs to start a true “strengthening” program for their pelvic floor at the first visit. The reason behind this is that Stress incontinence is not simply a failed muscle, but a failed system.
The urethra is supported within the continence system by fascia, ligaments, as well as muscular structures. When a downward force is applied to this system as occurs with coughing, sneezing, lifting, bending, etc, these structures function in a coordinated way to compress the urethra and prevent urine from leaking. In fact, Hodges et. al. in 2007 examined musculoskeletal activation occurring when a person performed an arm movement and found that the pelvic floor muscles pre-activated to prepare the body for movement. This helps to demonstrate that our pelvic floor muscles function as a member of the anticipatory core team. This team requires optimal and coordinated function of the diaphragm, the deep abdominal muscles, the deep low back muscles as well as the pelvic floor muscles. My awesome colleague, Julie Wiebe demonstrates that relationship very well in the video below (Note: Julie has an AWESOME blog/website- read more of her stuff here):
When any of these structures are not functioning well, leakage can occur. Now, the tricky part here is that optimal functioning requires both strength, flexibility and proper timing. A tight irritated muscle then becomes equally as dysfunctional as a weak over-stretched muscle. And, a strong, flexible muscle that doesn’t have the right timing contributes to a very dysfunctional system.
So, treatment for incontinence then must include retraining and reconditioning the system to ensure its proper functioning—which for me includes a bit of detective work to truly identify the faulty components. And, when it comes down to it, typically does not include doing 100 kegel exercises a day. More often, it includes learning to relax the pelvic floor and teach the pelvic floor to be a working team member– learning to coordinate the pelvic floor with the diaphragm, eliminating trigger points and restrictions which may be inhibiting this function, and then retraining the motor control of the lumbopelvic girdle as a system.
So, for now, take a deep breath and relax. We’ll save Kegels for another day.
For more information, check out the following:
- Diane Lee on Stress Urinary Incontinence and the Pelvis
- Pelvic Health & Rehabilitation on “Why Kegels are bad for your tight pelvic floor.”
- Me on “How to lift a bale of hay and not wet your pants”
I hope you enjoyed this throw-back- please feel free to share any thoughts or questions below!