Pelvic Floor Muscles: To Strengthen or Not to Strengthen?
If that is the question, then who should provide the answer? As I was reading yet another article about how women should strengthen the pelvic floor muscles to have a better orgasm, I can't help but think about the unfortunate women for whom this is a bad idea. Yes, having healthy awareness of and strength in the pelvic floor muscles is important for healthy sexual function, but healthy muscles and building of awareness is challenging to achieve from viewing a few images.
If you clicked on the link above about the article in question, you will see that the recommendation is for activating the pelvic floor muscles and engaging in pelvic strengthening exercises for up to a couple minutes per exercise, with several exercises prescribed up to 2x/day for a period of weeks. And that if you visualize stopping the flow of urine, you will surely feel the muscles activate. Based on clinical experience, we know that this is not the case for most women. One verbal cue may not be enough. The woman may not feel the muscle activation. She may have tight, painful pelvic muscles that are limiting healthy sexual function. These are issues that pelvic rehab providers face on a daily basis: when and how to strengthen the muscles.
Rhonda Kotarinos and Mary Pat Fitzgerald did the world of pelvic rehab an immense good with their promotion of the concept of the "short pelvic floor."If a patient presents with pelvic muscle tension, shortening of the muscle, and poor ability to generate a contraction, a relaxation phase, or a bearing down of the pelvic muscles, how in the world will trying to tighten those overactive muscles bring progress? This concept is further described in a 2012 article from the Mayo Clinic by Dr. Faubion and colleagues. The article explains the cluster of symptoms commonly seen with non-relaxing pelvic floor muscles including pain and dysfunction in bowel, bladder, and sexual function. Medical providers and rehab clinicians should look for this cluster of symptoms and combine this knowledge with a pelvic muscle assessment to decide if pelvic muscle strengthening is warranted.
If this has not been a part of your current practice, please consider ruling out a shortened or non-relaxing pelvic floor prior to suggesting any "Kegels" or pelvic muscle strengthening. If you are well aware of this issue, then it is our responsibility and opportunity to educate the public and the medical community to STOP! strengthening when it is not appropriate. The way I often explain this to patients or students is to pretend that a patient has walked in to the clinic with the shoulders elevated maximally, complaining of headaches or shoulder dysfunction. Then I say, "Great! Let's hit the weights- you just need to strengthen your upper traps." This always gets a giggle or a smirk, but the point is this: that is exactly what providers are doing to patients who walk in with bowel, bladder, pain, or sexual dysfunction when the announcement is made that "you just need to do your Kegels."
While we do not want to villainize Kegels or strengthening of the pelvic muscles, we do want our colleagues, our patients, and the valued referring providers to know that there is way more to pelvic health than strengthening. The abundance of bad advice available to our patients may leave them in worse condition and with less hope about finding relief. While well-intentioned, advice that only describes strengthening as the cure is misleading and potentially harmful.