One in three women struggles with a pelvic floor disorder, but many do not seek treatment. Learn more about these disorders.

The pelvic floor is a network of muscles, ligaments and tissues in the lower abdominal area. It acts like a hammock to support the uterus, vagina and rectum. Pelvic floor disorders are caused by tears, weakness or poor function of the muscles and nerves in the pelvic floor.

Sometimes the start of symptoms related to a pelvic floor disorder is so gradual that women get used to them, or they don’t even notice them until something major occurs. But for many women, pelvic floor disorders worsen with time.

Whether it’s a frequent urge to urinate or an inability to control bowel movements, pelvic disorders are uncomfortable and embarrassing. As a result, they are also underreported and underdiagnosed. Many people also believe that they can’t be corrected.

“In the past, incontinence was something women just suffered through silently. But today more and more women are learning that there are many options, both surgical and non-surgical to address a variety of pelvic floor disorders,” explains May Wakamatsu, MD, director of Urogynecology and Reconstructive Pelvic Surgery in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and co-director of the Pelvic Floor Disorders Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

5 Things to Know About Pelvic Floor Disorders

  1. Nearly one in three American women has one or more pelvic floor disorders.
  2. Obesity can significantly increase your chance of getting a pelvic floor disorder.
  3. Smoking leads to decreased estrogen levels and can compromise blood supply and, therefore, oxygen supply to tissues, weakening them while increasing your risk of pelvic floor disorders.
  4. Caffeine and alcohol speed up urine output and can contribute to urinary incontinence and frequency, including getting up at night to urinate.
  5. Chronic constipation and excessive straining can cause pelvic organ prolapse and rectal prolapse.

Types of Pelvic Floor Disorders

  • Urinary incontinence: A loss of bladder control leading to urinary accidents. Two common types of urinary incontinence are urge incontinence (urinary leakage with the sudden need to urinate) and stress incontinence (urinary leakage that occurs with physical effort, such as coughing, sneezing or exercising).
  • Pelvic organ prolapse: Pelvic support problems occur when one or more of the organs in a woman’s pelvis—the uterus, vagina, bladder or rectum—shifts down and bulges out of the vaginal canal, making everyday activities extremely uncomfortable. Women with pelvic organ prolapse may see or feel a bulge coming out of their vaginal opening.
  • Fecal incontinence: This is a loss of bowel control leading to accidental passing of stool. This problem can be caused by muscle damage during childbirth, constipation, anal injury, nerve injury or rectal prolapse.
  • Defecatory dysfunction: This condition refers to problems emptying the bowels. Symptoms may include the frequent and uncomfortable urge to have a bowel movement, constipation, and leakage of gas, diarrhea or solid stool.
  • Voiding dysfunction: This term refers to a variety of conditions that lead to the inability to empty the bladder normally. Examples include weakness of the bladder muscle and mechanical obstruction.

Learn more about types of pelvic floor disorders.