What are Pelvic Organ Prolapse and Urinary Incontinence?
What is the biggest risk factor for both conditions? And how can you tell if you have them?
Not sure? You’re not alone. In fact, one research study found women actually know more about erectile dysfunction than they do about pelvic organ prolapse! While pharmaceutical company advertising bias may be to blame for part of that equation, one of the largest surveys of pregnant women and new moms ever conducted on the subject (by a team of medical experts in New England) reveals women’s healthcare providers consistently miss their biggest window of opportunity to educate patients about these conditions and offer treatment strategies that work.
First, let’s take a quick look at each condition and answer a few of those questions about pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence.
Pelvic Organ Prolapse, or POP, occurs when a pelvic organ (often the bladder) drops a little lower in the body due to lack of support from weakened muscles and ligaments in the pelvic floor.
The most common symptoms are a bulge in the vagina (that’s the ‘prolapse’) and/or an uncomfortable feeling of heaviness in the pelvic area. Urinary Incontinence can occur with POP or as a separate condition. The symptoms, an increased urge to urinate or some degree of urine leakage, are more commonly recognized by women; but they’re also more likely than POP to be dismissed. Together, these conditions affect 1 in 4 women in the U.S.
And childbirth is the biggest risk factor for both conditions…
which is what makes this study’s findings so important to women and their healthcare providers.
Researchers asked adult women from a variety of backgrounds who were pregnant or up to eight weeks postpartum several questions related to their knowledge of both conditions and possible symptoms. More than two-thirds of the women had delivered at least one child previously, and more than half had at least some college education. The findings are troubling, to say the least.
- An alarming 70% of the women showed a significant lack of knowledge about both pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence and the symptoms of each one.
- Less than half of those women knew childbirth was the major risk factor for urinary incontinence, including the 39% of women who had those symptoms.
- Less than one-third of those women knew childbirth was a major risk factor for pelvic organ prolapse, including many of the 4.8% who had POP symptoms.
Despite the potential for serious physical, emotional, and social consequences when these conditions are left untreated, we already know women find it difficult or embarrassing to mention these symptoms to their healthcare providers.
But the frequency of visits and the relationships developed between doctor and patient while a woman is pregnant or newly postpartum provides a perfect window of opportunity for three different, strategic ‘asks’:
If you’re pregnant… Ask your OB about urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse at your next appointment. How can you recognize the symptoms? And what steps can you take now to avoid or address these issues later?
If you’re a healthcare provider or childbirth educator… Ask yourself how you can best incorporate patient education about urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse in your treatment plans and classes during and after pregnancy. It’s a discussion 98% of the women who participated in this survey said they would like their providers to initiate.
If you’re struggling with symptoms of either condition… Ask your OB about a treatment plan, or a referral to a urogynecologist or women’s health physical therapist. Pelvic floor therapy is a proven, non-surgical method of treatment that has helped countless women with both conditions.
Above all, don’t take ‘normal’ for an answer. urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse are more common than you think; but neither condition is a normal part of life after childbirth. You can recover; and Femina PT can help.
McKay E.R., Lundsberg L., Miller D., et al 2019. Knowledge of Pelvic Floor Disorders in Obstetrics. Female Pelvic Medicine & Reconstructive Surgery 25:6 419-25.
Richter L.A., Gutman R.E., Tefera E. et al., 2015. Knowledge of Erectile Dysfunctions and Pelvic Floor Disorders Among Young Adults: A Cross Sectional Study. The Canadian Journal Of Urology 5:22 7715-19.