If you’ve seen a doctor for constipation, pain during intercourse, or uncomfortable urination or incontinence, you may have been diagnosed with any number of lower-body disorders — vulvodynia, painful bladder syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome, to name a few. Meanwhile, an often-missed condition could be to blame.
Pelvic floor dysfunction “is super common,” says Sangeeta Mahajan, M.D., head of the Division of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. The Mayo Clinic estimates that as many as 50 percent of people with chronic constipation have pelvic floor dysfunction. “It is also one of those things that are horribly underdiagnosed,” Mahajan says.
8 Warning Signs of Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
Pelvic floor dysfunction can cause a number of symptoms, including:
- Needing to use the bathroom often, or stopping and starting many times when you go
- Straining hard to pass a bowel movement
- Leaking stool or urine (incontinence)
- Painful urination
- Lower back pain with no other cause
- Ongoing pain or discomfort in your pelvic region
- Pain during sex (for women)
Source: Cleveland Clinic
The pelvic floor is a bowl of muscles that supports the bladder, the rectum and, in women, the uterus and the vagina. In men, it supports the prostate. When these muscles become too tight and are unable to relax, a number of symptoms can arise. Urine may leak out, or you may have trouble making a bowel movement. Sex can become painful for women, and lower back pain can ensue.
That’s because “the organs, the muscles and the nerves of the pelvic floor communicate with each other,” explains Darren Brenner, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. And a problem in one area can easily affect another one nearby.
But with proper treatment — most often specialized physical therapy, but also acupuncture, meditation and even, in extreme cases, Botox — pelvic floor dysfunction can be a manageable condition.
Here are four things to know about pelvic floor dysfunction, including how to tell if you might have it and how to treat it.
1. Men can suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction
While it’s often associated with women (largely because pregnancy is a common cause), men can suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction, too. Globally, millions do each year, the Cleveland Clinic says.
Some men might have pain in their penis or hesitancy with urination, says Carrie Pagliano, a pelvic health physical therapist in Arlington, Virginia. Other times, it might present as testicular pain, explains Alicia Jeffrey-Thomas, a Boston-based physical therapist with a TikTok account that often addresses pelvic floor issues.
“The tendency will be to look only at the testicles, when really, a lot of times it is referred pain from the muscles themselves,” she says.