Heba talks about the stuff they don't tell you about being a new mum
Last month, we talked about what is normal and common after having a baby. We discussed post-partum vaginal bleeding and discharge, abdominal separation, lactation and the baby blues. This month we're going to have a look at what is common after birth, but not normal.
Prolapse is surprisingly common post-birth affecting about 50% of women. During pregnancy, the extra hormones make the connective tissue in women's bodies more lax to allow for childbirth. In some women during birth, this connective tissue overstretches and doesn't really tighten back up after birth. This means that the pelvic organs being held up by this connective tissue are sitting lower than they should be. If they have a forceps or vacuum delivery, their risk of prolapse goes up even more.
Women will experience symptoms like:
- Lower back pain. This is because the uterus attaches to the lower back via ligaments and if the uterus is sitting lower there is more pull up onto the lower back from within.
- Pelvic pressure or feelings of heaviness or dragging sensations
- Sensation of a bulge vaginally
- Leaking from the bladder. This is because the bladder and urethra are sitting lower than they should be.
- Incomplete emptying of the bladder. This is because the bladder sits lower than it should, a little pocket of the bladder can form and store urine
The best way to manage and sometimes even cure prolapse is to see a women's health physiotherapist 4-6 weeks after birth. She will fit you with a device to lift the prolapse called a pessary. The pessary will prevent any sensation of prolapse and sometimes even allow the connective tissue to tighten up completely within a year post-birth.
This illustration shows the bladder falling into the vaginal wall and is known as a cystocele. Prolapse can also refer to the uterus falling into the vagina, or rectum falling into the vagina (rectocele).
Incontinence is really common post-birth affecting at least 30% of women. Usually the incontinence is a direct result of a prolapse. Sometimes it is because of a weakness of the pelvic floor muscles. 1 in 3 women will have bladder control issues post-birth and 1 in 8 women will have bowel control issues post-birth, especially if she has had an anal sphincter injury or 3rd/4th degree perineal tearing during her labour.
Women may leak with a cough, sneeze, laugh, jump or run and this is known as stress incontinence. Or they may leak due to urgency, which is known as urge incontinence; sometimes they can have both. The great thing is physiotherapy can cure 80% of cases, and it can be as simple as doing your pelvic floor strengthening exercises.
A great set of exercises to get started with are doing 10 second holds, followed by 10 quick lifts, followed by 3 elevator exercises. The elevator exercise is visualising the pelvic floor as an elevator in a 3-storey building, and taking the pelvic floor to level 1, then level 2 then level 3, and then letting it drop back down to ground. If a woman does this every time she feeds her baby, she can keep her pelvic floor muscles strong.
It is a good idea to stop to ask yourself at your bub's 3 month 'birthday' the following question. "Have I felt that my bladder control has improved and is returning to normal since the birth?" If you have any concerns answering this favourably, seek assessment and advice from your women's health physiotherapist. She may wish to assess your strength, coordination and any presence of prolapse with an internal vaginal examination. You may need extra training and help to regain your strength or the pelvic floor region and to regain good bladder and bowel function and control. Perhaps you may need a pessary fitted and prescribed to help you along? This examination is the only way to truly see how well you are going with your pelvic floor muscle function after having your baby. We do hope that after the birth, our internal exams wouldn't worry you at all!
Having a baby is often compared to major surgery. And if you have a caesarean section, then it definitely is! Most women will have some amount of scar tissue after birth, whether it is vaginal scar tissue from an episiotomy or perineal tearing, or scar tissue from a c-section. And scar tissue, when it's not numb, can be quite sore.
This is why women can sometimes experience pain when sitting or when getting out of bed, while emptying their bladder and bowel, or even during sex. It's as common as 1 in 5 women. On top of that, the drop in oestrogen makes the vaginal area dry and more likely to be painful especially during sex. If you do have scar tissue, it's very important to do scar tissue massage along the entire length of the scar. Rub your finger perpendicular to the scar and spend 5 minutes every day rubbing into it to smooth out the tissue.
In some women the pelvic floor muscles go into spasm from the tearing, scar tissue and pain down there. These women may need to see a women's health physiotherapist for pelvic floor release work. These women often won't tolerate doing pelvic floor lifts, and can sometimes experience more pain from these types of exercises. If a woman has pain down there, pelvic floor relaxation exercises are more suitable. Imagine the way a pebble drops into a pond and the ripples it makes outwards and visualise that in your pelvic floor to help relax the muscles.
So remember, prolapse, incontinence and pain are common post-birth, but they are not normal. And you can certainly do something about them and sometimes cure them altogether with early visit to your women's health physiotherapist, either 4 weeks post-vaginal birth or 6 weeks post- caesarean birth.