If this post’s title has piqued your interest, chances are you’re interested in women’s health issues, particularly concerning the pelvic floor. You’ve likely seen information out there around the importance of pelvic floor exercises (Kegels), but there isn’t much emphasis on the importance of full pelvic floor relaxation – and what can happen when you can’t switch them off.
The pelvic floor is made up of a group of muscles. As a team, the pelvic floor muscles control both the front and back passage while supporting the internal organs. All muscles need to be able to contract and relax to operate efficiently. Imagine clenching your fist for a minute and then opening your hand fully. Feels a bit laboured, right? Now, imagine clenching your fist all day, every day and still expecting to have full use of that hand. Sound impossible? It’s no different down under.
A muscle can rest in three states:
- Over active – the muscle is contracting more than necessary,
- Under active – the muscle is contracting less than necessary,
- Normal tone – somewhere in the middle, when the muscle is at rest.
From a resting point of normal tone, a muscle can then contract more if needed to support or relax the bladder while passing urine, for example.
Long term overactivity in the pelvic floor may also halt its ability to relax properly. Those who are unable to relax may develop symptoms such as constipation, pain during sex, urgency and pelvic pain.
An overactive pelvic floor might occur for a number of reasons. These common reasons include:
- Over-training ‘core’ muscles and never giving them a chance to switch off,
- Holding onto your bladder or bowel for long period of time (which can happen when you hate public toilets!),
- High levels of stress and anxiety, similar to a dog tucking its tail between its legs,
- Abdominal health conditions causing a pain response such as endometriosis, frequent cystitis and IBS,
- Birth and trauma scar tissue, as these muscles can chronically contract to protect the area while healing.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above and you think this may be related to pelvic floor tension, try visiting a Pelvic Health Physiotherapist or Gynaecologist for treatment options.
If you think your symptoms are mild or if you simply wish to prevent tension from happening, there is a simple breathing exercise that can be helpful in relaxing the pelvic floor. This can be done as a standalone relaxation technique or alongside a pelvic floor exercise programme, between contractions.
Breathing exercises may seem simple and may also be unrelated to the pelvic floor. Very few women, however, know that in using your diaphragm to inhale and exhale, you are simultaneously engaging your lower abdominal wall and pelvic floor.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits under the lungs. When it contracts, air is drawn out of the lungs like a vacuum. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and pushes air up and out of the lungs. The pelvic floor coordinates with the diaphragm by relaxing when we inhale, and contracting when we exhale. By incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into our routine, we relax our body, mind and pelvic floor.
Diaphragmatic breathing can be used in any position but to get the the most out of it, it’s best to do it while lying down.
- Lie on your back on a flat surface, with your knees bent. (You may place a pillow under your knees for comfort)
- In order to feel the movement of your diaphragm, place one hand under the ribcage and the other on your upper chest. The hand on the chest should remain relatively still throughout the exercise.
- As you inhale slowly, try to breathe in so the air moves further down your abdomen. The hand on your chest should remain still, while the hand under your ribcage should rise.
- As you exhale slowly and evenly, the hand on your chest should remain still, while the hand under your ribcage should fall.
For optimum pelvic floor relaxation, use this technique or other popular techniques such as total body relaxation exercises, specific stretches, heat on the abdomen/perineum or abdominal bulging exercises. To err on the safe side, it’s best to do this under the direction or supervision of a healthcare professional.