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What is the Pelvic Floor?

December 19, 2016 | Dr. Mary South, MD

We talk a lot about “the pelvic floor” but what is “the pelvic floor” exactly? When we refer to the pelvic floor, we are specifically referring to three pairs of muscles, called the levator ani muscles. These muscles attach to the pelvic bones and need to be strong because they carry the weight of the abdominal and pelvic organs and have about the thickness of a hand stretched across the inferior opening of the pelvis.

Think of the pelvic floor as a hammock. The supporting “fabric” consists of two interlocking layers of muscles spanning front to back from the pubic bone (in front) to the lower spine (sacrum) and the tailbone (coccyx) at the base of the spine (in back). The layers of muscle are attached at the sides to the inferior ridges (ischial spines) of the large hipbones (ilia) and the “sitz bones” (ischial tuberosities), which protrude downward from each hipbone.

Each layer of the pelvic floor has a specific function:

  • The lower layer controls. The lower layer of muscle is essentially horizontal and is sometimes referred to as the perineum. It covers the inferior opening of the pelvis – the pelvic outlet – and contributes significantly to the control of urination and gas.
  • The upper layer supports. The upper layer of muscles is called the pelvic diaphragm and is shaped like a basin. It provides the main support to the pelvic organs and helps control the emptying of the bowel.

The muscles of the pelvic floor have three functions:

  • To support the pelvic organs
  • To provide a passageway for the birth of a child.
  • To contribute to sphincter control and the elimination of wastes – the indispensable role that pelvic floor muscles play in helping you control your bladder and bowel.

Our bodies have two types of muscle groups – voluntary and involuntary. Of course, all muscles are controlled through the brain and central nervous system, but those that you can consciously control are known as voluntary muscles. Those that the brain controls without your conscious help are known as involuntary muscles. The muscles of the pelvic floor are, for the most part, voluntary.

The movements of your intestines and the contraction of your bladder are performed by involuntary muscles, which are controlled by the nervous system and work automatically. When your rectum or bladder is full, the contractions of their involuntary muscles are felt as the urge to go to the bathroom.

Voluntary muscles are those that you can consciously contract and relax, or release, such as the large muscles of your arms and legs. These large muscles directly benefit from regular exercise. Like your arms and legs, the muscles of the pelvic floor benefit from regular exercise – and weaken if not exercised. Keeping your pelvic floor muscles strong is important in controlling the bowel and bladder! Read Dr. Bologna’s guide on “How to Kegel” to learn more about strengthening your pelvic floor.

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