Fiona McMahon PT, DPT.
Is kegeling the one true way to a healthy pelvic floor? Not always. We can end the blog here. Just kidding, of course there is nuance to be considered here. But as pelvic floor physical therapists, nothing is more cringe inducing than hearing the phrase “just do your kegels” thrown around for myriads of ailments from low libido, to pain, incontinence, and erectile dysfunction. While it is true the pelvic floor muscles can be involved in all of these conditions and in some cases kegels may help, there are many cases where kegels are the EXACT opposite of how you should be treating these muscles.
To understand kegels we must first understand the pelvic floor. To understand the pelvic floor we must also explain the muscles at a very basic level. Bare with me readers, this will help us as we bust through this myth. Muscles, all muscles do what they do, by contracting and getting shorter to produce force. This is easy to see on a bodybuilder doing a bicep curl. As she curls her hand up you can see these muscles shortening into a little ball. Not only is this a great way to show off your gains in the gym, the shortening of these muscles are providing the strength to perform this task. We call this shortening a concentric contraction. Kegels are concentric contractions too! A good kegel will cause the pelvic floor to shorten and provide strength. Let’s go back to our body builder for a second. She has done her lift now she needs to lower her dumbbell back to the floor. In order to lower that dumbbell back to the floor in a controlled way, she needs what’s called an eccentric contraction, which is the controlled lengthening of the muscle. If she did not have a good eccentric contraction she may not be able to lower that weight effectively after she curled it. What if she couldn’t lower her bicep at all or just very slowly after her bicep curl? Maybe her weightlifting wouldn’t be as effective, she’d tire more easily, or she could develop pain. Would you tell this woman that more bicep curls would help? Or might you suggest a program of stretching first? Telling someone to do kegels, when you don’t know the status of their pelvic floor and how well it can relax is similar to telling the bodybuilder with the non relaxing bicep to just do more bicep curls. At best it certainly won’t help the situation and at worst it could cause more pain and dysfunction.
“But Fiona, I have incontinence, so that definitely means I have weaknesses, so it’s good for me to do kegels, right?”. Maybe… but in my experience, probably not. Let’s agree on one thing, it’s completely intuitive that people would think that kegels would help incontinence. The muscles of the pelvic floor are responsible for continence… so they must be weak if one is experiencing incontinence. You are right! When we think weak with muscles, we often think weak and loose, which is one form of weakness, but we rarely think weak and tight. Let’s go back to our body builder lady. She deserves a name at this point. Let’s call her Kendra. If Kendra has a tough time moving her lifting her arm from fully straight to a full bicep curl, we could guess she is weak and loose. But if Kendra could not fully straighten her arm out she would be considered weak and tight. Both of these versions of Kendra would have trouble curling heavy weight. One Kendra due to frank weakness another Kendra because she simply does not have enough room or range of motion to generate enough force to curl that dumbell.
Tight and weak pelvic floors are a lot like second Kendra with the poor ability to lengthen her arm. Tight pelvic floors have less range of motion to generate force. You need a good amount of force from the pelvic floor to counteract the pressure of activities like lifting, coughing, laughing and sneezing and stay continent. Over loose and over tight pelvic floors can’t really do that.
If you have pain in your pelvis not from a medical condition, (although tight pelvic floors present with many medical conditions), your pelvic floor is probably tight. A tight pelvic floor may also have trigger points which can send pain to various locations in your genitals, back, legs, and abdomen. Continuing to tighten can cause this pain to get worse.
So how do you know what to do? This is where a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can come in handy. They can assess the muscles by touching them either externally or internally to determine what course of action is right for you. If you are loose and weak, HAPPY DAYS! Strengthening can help them get better. If you have tight and weak muscles, HAPPY DAYS again! Gentle lengthening, stretching and down training of the muscles can help them get better. Did you know, because a tight pelvic floor can cause weakness itself, returning the proper length to the muscles can restore strength, without actually needing to kegel?! Wild! Regardless of the situation happy days can be ahead.
Really knowing the pelvic floor is a skill and requires advanced expertise. Kegels should not be initiated, unless the physical therapist has carefully examined your pelvic floor. Not all therapists are trained to do that technique so it is important to inquire about their background before starting pelvic floor PT. There are a lot of different ways to treat the pelvic floor, to read more What is Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy . If you are interested in learning more give us a call at 212- 354-2622 for a free consult if you live in the greater NY/NJ/CT area.