clenched teeth and headaches in pregnancy

Pelvic floor anatomy and why you should care

Maybe you’ve heard some chatter about pelvic floor anatomy while reading about pregnancy or postpartum and want to know what all the fuss is about. Or maybe you’ve tried to become a kegel-queen but just can’t quite connect to the pelvic floor. Or maybe you’re a bit of a nerd like myself and want to understand the human body in all its glory.

Whatever your reason for landing here, understanding more about the anatomy of the pelvic floor will help you work toward keeping pelvic floor problems at bay and improving your overall awareness of your lady parts. Let’s help you go from feeling disconnected to your body to improving your sex life, decreasing your risk of wetting your pants, keeping you aware of what to look for with prolapse, and even assisting with labor and delivery. 

Why is the pelvic floor important?

To understand why pelvic floor anatomy is important, we need to understand why the pelvic floor is important. The pelvic floor has a lot to do with your everyday function, whether you think about those muscles or not. They don’t ask for a lot of fanfare, but they may get a little lax about their jobs if you don’t show them a little love now and again. (Total #squirrel moment here – but this reminds me of the book, The Five Love Languages. Total game-changer for my relationship with my husband!)

The 5 functions of the pelvic floor

The pelvic floor has 5 main functions – helpfully, they all start with the letter “s.” I’ll spell them out below or you can check out the infographic if you’re more visual.

  1. Support – for your pelvis and the pelvic organs
    • Your pelvic floor helps support the structure of the pelvis and keeps your pelvic organs inside of you, preventing pelvic organ prolapse (aka the movement of organs down into the vagina towards the outside of the body)
  2. Sphincteric – holding back urine and feces
    • Pelvic floor muscles help keep your underwear clean by keeping the exits for your pee and poo closed. This is especially important with increased intraabdominal force, like with sneezing, coughing, or jumping, as well as with increased urgency (like being stuck in traffic when you really gotta go!)
  3. Sexual – increased pleasure
    • When pelvic floor muscles are healthy and strong, but also supple and not overly tight, they can help make sex more pleasurable and orgasms more powerful
  4. Sump Pump – moving lymph fluid out of the pelvis
    • The pelvic floor muscles help move lymph fluid (which helps move toxins to the body’s detox centers) from around your pelvis when they contract and relax. This is especially true with orgasm
  5. Stability –  helping with posture and breathing
    • The muscles of the pelvic floor make up part of the “core,” providing stability to the trunk, allowing for better postural control, and they move with the diaphragm with every breath

Five Functions of the Pelvic Floor

 

Why is pelvic floor anatomy important?

Learning about how to use the pelvic floor muscles can be challenging because we can’t see them! Plus, many people have never even been taught they have muscles helping to support their trunk and organs. Lastly, some of us use movement patterns that don’t allow our pelvic floor muscles to work as well as they could. (Butt-clenchers, I’m talking to you!) 

But, really, why should you care about learning the anatomy of the pelvic floor specifically in the first place?! 

If you really want to create change to your pelvic floor strength or relaxation, you need to be able to visualize what you’re working on.

Your ability to visualize these muscles actually helps create new pathways in your brain that allow you to connect and use these muscles how you’d like. In fact, there are even specific parts of your brain connected to specific areas of your body, which can be seen on a diagram called a “homunculus” pictured below.

brain-body connection
You might notice in this image that the genitals and the toes are right next to each other. Now you can see why “toe-curling sex” is a thing! You might also find that when you kegel (try to contract your pelvic floor), your toes also scrunch as they try to help you out.
So if you can visualize the muscles of the pelvic floor better, you can connect with them better.
If you can connect with them better, you’ll be able to rely on them for things like less pelvic, hip, or back pain, better sex, improved bladder and bowel health, and easier labor and delivery.

These muscles can be very challenging to connect with (in fact, some studies say that about 50% of women do a kegel incorrectly or even could be making the problem worse when they try it on their own without good instruction!) That’s why I want to tell you more than just what many magazines tell you – “stop the flow of urine.”

I want you to be successful and enjoy the many benefits a healthy pelvic floor can afford you.  Trying to turn these muscles on without being able to imagine them is kind of like digging around your car seat for the dropped french fry. You’re doing your best, but you’re not really sure if you’re even close to where you should be. 

And unfortunately the adage of “if you don’t use it, you lose it” tends to prove true for our bodies. So we need to be aware of these muscles! Because no one wants to be a party pooper (literally).

The Stacked Hammocks of the Pelvic Floor

I first heard about physical therapy for the pelvic floor from my grandmother, who worked with women’s health issues and knew a physical therapist who specialized in it, before I entered graduate school. But it wasn’t until I was sitting in class in PT school that I really learned much about all the amazing structures that make up the pelvic floor.

Now to be fair, there are A LOT more structures in the pelvic floor than just muscles. Nerves, ligaments, arteries, veins, just to name some of the other structures also play a huge role in the function and health of the pelvic floor. But for our purposes of being able to visualize the pelvic floor for strengthening or stretching, we’re going to focus on the muscles, where they attach, and what they do.

There are 3 layers of muscles in the pelvic floor helping with the 5 functions we discussed earlier. These 3 layers are stacked on top of one another (kind of like 3 hammocks stacked on top of one another).

three hammocks stacked like the three layers of the pelvic floor
I wouldn’t mind taking a nap in one of these

Let’s break each of these layers down and explain where they are in the body and why each is important.

Layer 1

  • Location: closest to the surface of the body
  • Functions: moving blood to sexual organs, helping stabilize the pelvic floor, and closing the anal sphincter

Layer 2

  • Location: in the middle of the pelvic floor, almost along the same lines as layer 1
  • Functions: opening or closing to allow urine to pass or not, also stabilizing the pelvic floor

Layer 3

  • Location: the deepest layer
  • Functions: supporting the pelvic organs, helping support defecation

All together, these muscles attach from the pubic bone, back to the tail bone, and to the ischium on both sides of the body.

The video below gives you a nice visual of where all these muscles attach so you can really get that mind-body connection going.

 

Make it Work!

I know from personal experience how learning about these muscles has helped me hold urine in with coughing or sneezing or relax and let go when I haven’t had enough water and constipation comes calling.

Plus, many of the women I work with are able to connect with their pelvic floor muscles so much better once they can really hone in on them.  Before learning about their pelvic floors, many were new mamas with pain and discomfort, feeling like they can’t help but wet themselves, or like they don’t know anything about their bodies anymore. Once they understand how to activate their pelvic floors, they feel more comfortable in their skin, less worried about where the bathroom is when they’re out and about, and more confident they will be able to keep up with their kiddos and return to the activities they love.

Now that we have a visual of where these muscles are, I hope you are able to connect to your pelvic floor even better. If you want some more direction on how to activate the pelvic floor, check out this post. And for even more guidance on connecting to the rest of the body, check out my ebook.

What function of the pelvic floor are you most surprised by?

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