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What is the Pelvic Floor?

Woman doing yoga with a pelvic floor ball

The pelvic floor comes up in most conversations about the bladder or incontinence. That’s because most people know that pelvic floor exercises are a good thing to do to improve and maintain the function of the bowel and bladder. That being said, not many people know that much about the pelvic floor itself!

Read on to find out everything you could ever need to know about this fascinating group of muscles.


What does the pelvic floor do?

The pelvic floor is the name of the supportive sling of muscles and connective tissue that stretches from the tailbone at the back of your body to the pubic bone at the front. The main job of the pelvic floor is to support the pelvic organs like the bladder, bowel and rectum. In women, they also support the womb. They protect these organs from external damage, and support them when standing. One way to imagine the pelvic floor is like a hammock with the pelvic organs lying on top.

As well as supporting your organs, the pelvic floor muscles also control the anal sphincter, urethra, vaginal opening and blood flow to the penis. Therefore, these muscles control and regulate many bodily functions including sexual function, defecation and of course, urination.


How do pelvic floor muscles work?

Another way to think about the pelvic floor muscles is like a firm, thick muscular trampoline. Just like a trampoline, it is able to move up and down to support the muscles that lie on top of it.

The layer of muscles has gaps that allow other organs to pass through. In men there are two passages (for the urethra and anus) and women have three passages (for the urethra, anus and vagina). By contracting (squeezing) or relaxing, the pelvic floor muscles can control the function of these passages and allow the release of urine, poo and wind.


Pelvic floor problems

Problems can occur when the pelvic floor muscles become weakened or damaged. Some common causes for a weakened pelvic floor include going through childbirth, obesity, heavy lifting and straining. They may also be caused by radiation treatment or pelvic surgery.

There are three main types of pelvic floor disorders:

  • Incontinence, or being unable to control your bladder/bowel 
  • Pelvic organ prolapse, such as bladder prolapse 
  • Obstructive defecation, where you are unable to pass stool 

While pelvic floor disorders are more common as you get older, they can and should still be treated. Similarly, while childbirth increases a woman’s risk of experiencing pelvic floor problems, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that can be done! Something as simple as pelvic floor exercises can have a real impact in strengthening the muscles and improving your condition.

For example, the stress of childbirth on a woman’s body can weaken the pelvic floor and cause them to experience post-natal incontinence. You can read our article all about little leaks in pregnancy and after birth to find out more.


What are pelvic floor exercises?

Pelvic floor exercises are also sometimes known as Kegel exercises. That’s because they’re named after a gynaecologist called Arnold Henry Kegel who invented squeezing the muscles of the pelvic floor as a non-surgical treatment for incontinence, as well as an instrument to measure how strong the pelvic floor muscles are when contracting.

Pelvic floor exercises are a way to increase the strength of your pelvic floor muscles – and it’s not just people with incontinence that benefit from practising these exercises. As well as helping to improve conditions like incontinence, they can also prevent prolapse, reduce symptoms of erectile dysfunction in men, increase sensitivity for women during sex and also lower the risk of incontinence after pregnancy if practiced during pregnancy and after giving birth.

Everyone can benefit from doing pelvic floor exercises, and you can start at any age! We have written an article with instructions for how to do pelvic floor exercises, as well as a page on how you can practice yoga that benefits the pelvic floor.


Are you worried about your pelvic floor?

If you’re suffering from incontinence or something else that could be connected to your pelvic floor, talk to your GP. They will be able to help diagnose your issue, and work out the best course of treatment.

If you’re pregnant, then your health practitioner will be able to answer any questions you may have. You can also read our pre and postnatal pelvic floor tips to find out more.