What is a tight pelvic floor? In 2012 Dr. Stephanie Faubion from the Mayo Clinic wrote a scientific article on recognition and management of the “nonrelaxing pelvic floor,” at the time and probably still, an under-recognized and under-treated problem in women.
The wonderful thing about this article was that it brought attention to a problem that is common for women, and the fact that PT should be considered a first line of intervention. But a tight pelvic floor should not be considered normal or acceptable. Dr. Faubion states that “women affected by nonrelaxing pelvic floor dysfunction may present with a broad range of nonspecific symptoms” which may include:
- pain and problems with emptying the bowel
- pain and problems with urination
- sexual dysfunction and pain with attempted intercourse
What is a tight pelvic floor?
Several terms such as pelvic floor tension myalgia, piriformis syndrome, and levator ani syndrome and nonrelaxing pelvic floor dysfunction have been used to describe the problem of a tight pelvic floor.
How to recognize a tight pelvic floor
- Do you have bowel, bladder or sexual dysfunction or pain?
- Do you have bloating, constipation, difficulty evacuating stool, straining with bowel movement, splinting the pelvic floor in order to have a bowel movement, manually evacuating the bowel or relying on enemas or laxatives, sense of incomplete emptying after or during going to the bathroom?
- Do you have urinary frequency, hesitancy, urgency, bladder pain, or do you lose urine shortly after getting a strong urge to go?
- Do you have pain with sex, aching in the pelvis after intercourse, or are unable to tolerate penetration?
If so, you may need to find a pelvic PT to help. See below for resources on finding a pelvic PT.
What you may feel if the pelvic floor is too tight
- ✅Back pain or sacroiliac joint pain
- ✅Hip pain
- ✅Snarky Psoas “syndrome” – that’s what I call hip flexors that just won’t quit firing, which can create some of the problems in this list
- ✅Tight, ropy muscles in the front of the hip – like the rectus femoris, sartorious, or TFL (tensor fascia lata)
- ✅Tight inner thigh muscles (called adductors – in hip issues, these are the first to cry “wolf” and the last to be quiet)
- ✅Draggy, heavy, or achy feeling in the pelvic floor
- ✅Pain with sex
- ✅Pinching in the groin or front of the hip
- ✅Lack of hip range of motion
- ✅Stiff spine
What kind of things can cause tightness and/or pelvic floor dysfunction
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are some of the things that can cause tightness and/or pelvic floor dysfunction:
- ❎Back gripping
- ❎Butt clenching
- ❎Poor posture
- ❎Pelvic organ prolapse
- ❎Weak pelvic floor
- ❎Rigidly holding the ab muscles in (as if trying to flatten your stomach)
- ❎Incorrect breathing
- ❎Vocal tension
- ❎Injuries from childbirth or tearing during childbirth
- ❎Abdominal or back surgery
- ❎Hip pain or injury
- ❎Kegels (too many or incorrect form)
- ❎Diastatsis rectus abdominis (split abdominal muscles)
- ❎Anxiety, stress, or other external factors
What it looks like to relax the pelvic floor
Below is an ultrasound image of the bladder, vaginal canal, and pelvic floor. I use rehabilitative ultrasound imaging (RUSI) at my clinic as part of my evaluation and intervention for the pelvic floor and surrounding area. RUSI is incredibly valuable for addressing core and pelvic floor, bladder, and bowel retraining and rehab.
In the image below, the dark area is the bladder and the measurements were taken at rest and with a deep belly or abdominal breath. D1 is a view of the anatomy with the patient at rest. D2 is during a deep belly breath. The difference between D1 and D2 is the patient’s ability to allow the pelvic floor to drop and stretch with an inhalation.
What should we see?
Inhalation – We want to see excursion of the pelvic floor or “drop.”
Exhalation – The pelvic floor returns to what is hopefully a resting (not tight or nonrelaxed) state.
For patients who cannot do this, RUSI helps to retrain their breath, use of abdominal and back muscles, and the ability to relax and let go of the tension creating a “tight pelvic floor.” It’s an invaluable tool because it allows a patient to actually see their pelvic floor (and other muscles and organs as well when I do different scans) in real time and get instant feedback on exercises and breathwork we do during therapy.
How can you relax a tight pelvic floor?
I often use yoga, a specific type of yoga called Medical Therapeutic Yoga, to tackle complex pain issues that can come from pelvic floor and hip or back pain. I also use Lifestyle Medicine and other mindfulness practices to help women successfully manage their pain and impairment. However, for this Pose of the Week, I’m just addressing yogic breathwork you can do to help relax a tight pelvic floor. See below to get started!
What can be done to help
The first step is to find a pelvic PT. You can do that at the links below. The next is to learn about how a pelvic PT can help. A pelvic PT has received specialized training in treating the pelvic girdle and floor and will:
- Perform a thorough physical examination
- This exam of the urogenital and pelvic area may be internal and/or external
- Evaluate musculature of the urogenital triangle
- Perform palpation of the deep pelvic floor muscles
- Perform ultrasound imaging (if available) to visualize anatomy and functioning of the pelvic floor and surrounding abdominal wall and/or hip musculature
- Prescribe appropriate treatment such as bladder or bowel retraining
- May refer you for anorectal manometry or internal pelvic ultrasonography
- May have you complete a voiding diary, urinalysis, and possibly refer you for urodynamic study for voiding symptoms or to a gastroenterologist for gut symptoms
- Provide education about pelvic floor muscles and function and a complete program for addressing your particular issues and pain
Find a pelvic PT near you:
The second step is to learn how to breathe. That will give you a big head start in starting to manage your pain and begin the process of recovery. See the video below to get started on relaxing the pelvic floor.
The mechanics of relaxed belly breathing
Inhalation – The respiratory diaphragm and pelvic floor should descend and gently expand/stretch, which will inflate or expand the abdomen at the same time.
Exhalation – The respiratory diaphragm and pelvic floor should return to their previous state, and the abdomen will also return to its steady state.
The laryngeal/thoracic/vocal diaphragm should remain open and at ease, with no tension. in the muscles of the face or neck.
An Extra Tip! Guided Relaxation for Toileting
About the Author
Ginger is a passionate, unapologetic advocate of improving access to healthcare, a mother to 3 sons, & a 20+ year veteran in Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine in women’s health physical therapy & athletic training. She is the author of Medical Therapeutic Yoga, founder of Living Well Institute, owner of EudeMOMIa Integrative PT & Lifestyle Medicine, and most recently uprooted to Greensboro, NC with her family after 21 years of beach living, where they and their rescue pup Scout are wildly joyous about their new hometown.
PS HERE ARE 3 MORE WAYS I CAN HELP YOU!
2. Take the Trifecta Tuesday Core Health Series with me at Living Well Institute and Yoga U Online!
Get 3 hours of pelvic floor and core retraining PLUS my newly released 2nd edition of Best Care Practices for Core Health, a 110 page full color multi-media (video and illustrations) EBook. This PT-led yoga-based course will help you learn to take control of your core and pelvic floor.
3. Take advantage of the Free Medical Therapeutic Yoga Basic Video Library.
Just want the book?
Dr. Garner’s E-Book – Best Care Practices for Core Health, 2nd ed. comes with the Trifecta Tuesday 3 Diaphragm Core Series for FREE (a $15 value). This 100+ page E-book outlines some of the most important CORE PRACTICES in this series.
DISCLAIMER: These movements are for protection and preservation, as well as maximizing, pelvic girdle function (hip, SIJ, low back, pelvic floor). This and any other videos I instruct do not constitute physical therapy or a patient-provider relationship. User assumes risk in performing this or any video. Finally, you need to get the approval of your healthcare provider before doing this or any instructional movement video. Assessment and evaluation of the hip & knee should only be done by a licensed healthcare provider.