THE ULTIMATE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO PROLAPSE
By: Dr. Brianne Grogan, PT, DPT
Are you dealing with prolapse symptoms? Prolapse is a shift in organ position. Pelvic organ prolapse can lead to feeling a heaviness in your pelvic floor, urinary issues, and uncomfortable sex. I wrote the Beginner's Guide to Prolapse so that you can educate yourself about prolapse, and see rays of hope for relief and recovery! I resolved my own prolapse symptoms, and as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I have helped thousands of women do the same. Let's get started.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Do You Have Prolapse (Or Suspect You Have) Prolapse?
- What is Prolapse?
- The Missing Link That’s Rarely Addressed
- Types of Prolapse
- Stages of Pelvic Organ Prolapse
- What to Do if You Have Prolapse
- Daily Practices to Relieve Prolapse
- Things to Avoid if You Have Prolapse
- Lifestyle Changes for a Healthy Pelvic Floor
- Conclusion and Prognosis
DO YOU HAVE PROLAPSE?
If so, you’re not alone. 50% of women who’ve given birth have some degree of pelvic organ prolapse (POP), and even women who’ve never been pregnant can develop the condition. POP is more common than you might think, and sadly, it’s under-discussed, under-recognized, and often passed off as something you “just have to live with.” It’s not!
Three weeks after giving birth I made a mistake that changed my entire life. As a brand new, first-time mom I was emotional, exhausted, and anxious to get back to my “normal” routine. I laced up my running shoes and hit the pavement. Needless to say, my three-week postpartum body wasn’t ready for the stress and strain of a high-impact sport. A few minutes into my run, I felt something drop in my pelvic area. In that instant, I developed a mild bladder prolapse.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that with time and specific exercises and lifestyle changes, I was able to completely resolve my prolapse symptoms. Fourteen years later, I still maintain my pelvic health AND I teach these techniques to a global community of women with POP.
Prolapse changed my life, and now I’m using what I learned on my personal healing journey to provide hope and help to other women who are scared and suffering in silence! If you have (or suspect you have) POP, please don’t despair; there’s so much you can do to relieve your symptoms naturally — without surgery — and I want to show you some tools right now.
WHAT IS PROLAPSE?
Knowledge is power and pelvic health is something that EVERY WOMAN should strive to understand! However, I also want to make clear that while self-exploration is important, you should always get confirmation of your self-evaluation from a trusted healthcare provider. I recommend seeing a gynecologist or urogynecologist, and/or a women's health physical therapist.
With that being said, let’s discuss POP: what it is, and how to know if you have it.
POP is a disruption (a shift) in organ position. With prolapse, one or more of the pelvic organs descend from their normal position, causing discomfort and/or a sensation of heaviness or bulging in the pelvic region. POP can occur due to laxity in the connective tissues that hold the organ(s) in place, or due to lack of support from the pelvic floor muscles underneath.
But please understand: POP isn’t just an issue of “saggy” or weak pelvic floor muscles!
Although pelvic floor weakness is typically involved, sometimes these weak pelvic floor muscles are actually too tight. "Tight" does not always mean "strong!" Therefore, kegel exercises aren't always the best place to start if you have prolapse. (Keep reading for more tips on what to do for natural prolapse relief.)
POP is generally due to dysfunctional patterns of muscular tension, scar tissue, and problems with intra-abdominal pressure management from years of poor posture, improper lifting, chronic coughing, pushing to pee, or straining to poo. Any of these concerns can cause (and/or perpetuate) pelvic organ shifts.
Physical symptoms for women with prolapse:
- feeling heaviness in the pelvis or like something is "stuck" in the vagina
- gut issues; troubles with constipation or difficulty having a BM
- urinary urgency or frequency, and sometimes bladder leakage
- back and/or pelvic pain, and fatigue by the end of the day especially
THE MISSING LINK THAT’S RARELY ADDRESSED
Prolapse symptoms impact both the mind and the body. Excess pelvic muscle tension can occur because of a desire to grip and "hold in" the shifted organs, to "hold in" urine (due to worry about bladder leakage), and due to anxiety and emotional strain.
Common emotional symptoms for women with prolapse:
- fear of moving wrong, exercising wrong, etc. (fear of making their POP worse)
- fear that it won't ever get better, and they'll never be able to return to their active life
- body image issues
- feelings of shame and/or embarrassment
- anger or betrayal that this has happened to their body
- feeling isolated like there's no one to talk to or that no one understands
A huge part of POP is tension. If you're stressed and hold tension in your pelvic area, it can make prolapse feel worse. Many of my clients feel so much better when they learn how to relax their pelvic floor.
The mind-body connection is a very real thing, and it contributes to how you EXPERIENCE your prolapse symptoms. The mind and body are in constant communication, and your brain is what interprets the sensations that come from your body. When your brain interprets the sensations of prolapse as warning signs of pain, danger, oh my goodness my life is over, I'll never get better, scary-scary-scary (I think you get my drift!!!)... when the sensations from your prolapse are interpreted by your brain in this way, it makes the "alarm bells" of fear go off, and your POP symptoms feel worse.
Fear puts your body in "brace mode," which causes muscle tension. When the pelvic floor muscles tense up, they squeeze around the shifted organs and/or pull on the connective tissues that surround the shifted organs, making the prolapse feel worse.
It's important to do your body-based work — go to your pelvic floor physical therapist, do the exercises and lifestyle changes recommended in my Lift program, etc. — but focus on your mind as well.
Calm your mind via presence practices such as slow, deep breathing or guided meditations to relieve stress and reduce pelvic tension. Do this in hips-up time for maximum results (keep reading for more about hips-up time)!
Also, redirect your attention (your mind) away from fear-based thoughts about POP, and toward thoughts that are more positive. Better yet, direct your mind toward thoughts that are completely unrelated to POP! You are so much more than your pelvic floor. People can become so wrapped up in their prolapse diagnosis that it can be hard to dis-identify with it, but it's absolutely possible, and it's incredibly helpful. What did you enjoy thinking about or doing before developing POP? Do more of that.
I also encourage people to stop checking their prolapse multiple times per day. Constant checking keeps your brain in a state of fear and hypervigilance. This video has some tips to help.
Often women have never even heard of prolapse until they feel like “things feel different down there.” As mentioned above, developing prolapse after childbirth is very common. What is alarming is the lack of awareness about this common concern, the lack of support for women, and the lack of dialogue between healthcare professionals and their patients. Pelvic health is a taboo subject in society (and in some cases, even within the healthcare system), and it’s abhorrent that pelvic floor care isn’t “standard procedure” for women, like routine dental care or annual physical check-ups. Women all over the world suffer for YEARS — even their whole adult life — with bladder leakage or pelvic organ prolapse. This should not be the case. You need support physically and emotionally to healthfully understand the changes that occur and how to live a confident lifestyle when you have POP.
But keep reading, because there is help for prolapse. YES, you CAN reverse symptoms! Don’t give up hope!
TYPES OF PROLAPSE
These are the major types of POP that affect women. Cyctocele is the most common, and it also seems to be the most easily treatable! However, please know that ALL types of prolapse can be successfully treated. You do not have to live with heavy, bulging sensations forever.
- Cystocele: bladder descends and pushes into the anterior (front) vaginal wall
- Urethrocele: the urethra presses into the vaginal wall
- Cystourethrocele: both the cystocele and urethrocele occur together
- Rectocele: rectum descends and pushes into the posterior (back) vaginal wall
- Rectal Prolapse: the rectum droops and protrudes through the anus
- Enterocele: the small intestine descends into the area between the vagina and the rectum, pushing into the upper wall of the vagina
- Uterine prolapse: uterus descends and the cervix is more clearly seen/felt
- Vaginal vault prolapse: the top of the vagina descends down into the vaginal canal (this can occur after hysterectomy)
- Descending Perineum Syndrome: the perineum (area between the vagina and the anus) sinks down below its normal position
STAGES OF PELVIC ORGAN PROLAPSE
The following staging system (called the POP-Q) is commonly used by gynecologists, and offers a simple strategy to “grade” a person’s level of POP.
- Stage 0 = no prolapse
- Stage 1 = bottom portion of the prolapse is more than 1 cm above the level of the hymen (it protrudes into the vaginal canal, but the bulge is not at the entrance of the vagina)
- Stage 2 = bottom portion of the prolapse is less than 1 cm above or below the level of the hymen (it reaches the opening of the vagina)
- Stage 3 = bottom portion of the prolapse is more than 1 cm below the plane of the hymen (the bulge protrudes outside of the vaginal opening)
- Stage 4 = vaginal eversion is essentially complete
*Stages 1 and 2 are considered mild to moderate. These stages are often TREATABLE without surgical intervention! Here are three studies with outcomes that suggest that conservative management is worth considering if the prolapse is mild to moderate: Study One, Study Two, and Study Three.
Physical Examination Technique to Determine Stage
While exams are often done lying down in supine, a standing exam is ideal to confirm the full extent of prolapse since standing is a functional position in which we (humans) spend most of our normal daily lives. Don't just test on an exam table. Stand!!!
The best part? You can try this at home, on your own.
- Empty your bladder
- Stand with feet apart, and knees softly bent (option: stand with one foot up on a stepstool)
- Separate your labia (the "lips" that surround your vaginal opening) and hold a handheld mirror under your vagina
- What do you see? Take note if you see a bulge (refer to the staging system above).
- Gently bear down, and observe. Your perineum should slightly descend, but you should not see a bulge. Refer to the staging system above, if you see a bulge.
- Try coughing a few times, and observe. Ultimately, your pelvic floor muscles should reflexively/automatically contract to prepare for the cough. If they do not reflexively contract, then you might experience and/or see a bulge. Refer to the staging system above.
- Gently insert 1-2 finger(s) into your vagina. What do you feel? Take note. Is the bulge/movement coming from the anterior/front vaginal wall, or the posterior/back vaginal wall? Or from the top? Try gently bearing down, and observe. Then try coughing, and observe.
*Note: you can also examine yourself while sitting on a toilet, or while sitting on the edge of a bathtub or the edge of a bench. In my personal opinion this is a "step up" from a supine examination (i.e. an exam done lying on your back).
WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE PROLAPSE
As noted above, stages 1 and 2 prolapse are considered mild to moderate. These stages are often TREATABLE using conservative management!
Conservative management includes exercises and simple lifestyle techniques such as those found in my Lift program. You can also ask your doctor for a pessary fitting. Pessaries are silicone rings inserted into the vagina to help address a prolapse; they’ve been referred to as a “sports bra for your vagina,” and have been life-changing for many women.
Surgery is typically required to correct more advanced stages of prolapse (i.e. stage 3 and 4). Surgery might be indicated (for various reasons) at earlier stages; however, it's not an ideal first line of defense. There's always risk involved in surgery, and the rate of surgical failure (or need for re-operation) for prolapse is high.
If you're diagnosed with a grade 1 or 2 prolapse, then I encourage you to explore conservative options first. Even if your doctor recommends surgery, consider asking for a trial of conservative treatment before making the surgery decision.
If you have more advanced prolapse that requires surgery, you can still benefit from conservative treatment (exercise and lifestyle changes). When you go into surgery with improved pelvic awareness, more muscular strength and control, and knowledge of how to live a pelvic floor-safe life, you will be better prepared to go into surgery. You'll also have better results post-op.
The take-home message: Reversing symptoms of stages 1 and 2 prolapse is possible, and preventing progression of prolapse is always possible… no matter how advanced it is! Follow my "Lift" video series, and seek guidance from a pelvic health expert who can provide a physical examination to best determine your condition.
10 Minutes of Pelvic + Core Friendly Movement
It’s important to keep moving when you have POP. Don’t let fear of your condition derail you from your health and mobility! Avoid high-impact activities and heavy weight lifting (for now), but continue to move your body throughout the day. Maintain your cardiovascular fitness by walking or doing other forms of low-impact exercise, and — in general — keep enjoying your life. I recommend “priming” your pelvic floor and core with 10 minutes of core-focused movement each day, preferably in the morning. Wake up your muscles and set yourself up for success. My Lift program is perfect for this! This video also offers some great moves to get started.
Eat a Clean, Anti-Inflammatory Diet
What you eat impacts your energy level and your digestion, both of which impact your pelvic health. Fuel your body with healthy, whole foods with a focus on fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats to stay energized and motivated so that you can heal!
Avoid processed foods and any foods to which you are sensitive. Many people experience bloating when they consume sugar, and/or constipation when they consume dairy. Bloating and constipation can make your prolapse symptoms worse. To combat these concerns, drink plenty of water and load up on fruits and veggies.
A Mind-Body Practice (Meditation or Other Options)
This might surprise you, but your biggest problem is not your prolapse…. It’s your thoughts about your prolapse! Your mindset can hurt you, or it can help you. When your mind is racing, tense, and anxious about your prolapse, your brain sends signals to your body that create tension in your pelvic floor muscles. Your pelvic floor then squeezes around your shifted pelvic organ(s), making symptoms worse. To get to the root of this problem, spend time every day calming your mind and your body. Adopting a daily mind-body practice such as meditation (or even just a few minutes of hips-up time, see next step) is essential when it comes to prolapse relief.
Hips-up time is a simple tool that you can use EVERY DAY to help relieve pressure on your pelvic floor and allow your muscles to relax and rejuvenate. You'll need a pillow (or two), a yoga block, or a meditation cushion. Place the prop under your sacrum (the back of your pelvis), and relax. Gravity does the work of pulling your pelvic organs back into ideal alignment, and your pelvic floor muscles get a chance to unwind!
I recommend 3-5 minutes of hips-up time every day to relax your mind and your body. Avoid doing hips-up time after a big meal, as this can cause heartburn and gastric upset.
Hips-up time during your period is a personal preference. From a physiological standpoint, it won't harm you to do a few minutes of hips-up time while menstruating; however, many women (including myself) prefer, energetically, to avoid inversions. I like to "let it flow" during that time of the month, and inversions feel like they're preventing that from happening. I personally skip hips-up and just lie on my back for a few minutes in the afternoon, during my period. You still get the benefits of rest and some relief on your tired pelvic floor muscles!
For hips-up time during pregnancy, use caution. At around 20 weeks of pregnancy, when you lie on your back for extended periods, the weight of your uterus can compress a major blood vessel called the vena cava. This disrupts blood flow to your baby and can leave you feeling nauseated, dizzy, and short of breath. Therefore, you really need to be aware of the possibility of compression. It's usually fine to do hips-up time for a bit, but it might be uncomfortable — and possibly even unsafe — for longer periods. I typically counsel pregnant women to spend the majority of their relaxing time in side-lying, ultimately with a pillow between the knees.
THINGS TO AVOID IF YOU HAVE PROLAPSE
- Poor posture (i.e. slouching/slumping when sitting, standing, or walking)
- Sitting or standing with your bum tucked under and your butt muscles clenched
- Wearing restrictive clothing, belts, or belly bands that pinch around your middle
- Holding your breath throughout the day due to stress/anxiety
- Holding your breath while exercising or lifting objects (instead of holding your breath, remember this simple trick: exhale with exertion)
- Pushing to pee or poo – do your best to stay regular and avoid constipation
- Smoking – you must stop smoking if you have prolapse! Anything that causes or exacerbates a chronic cough will make prolapse worse
LIFESTYLE CHANGES FOR A HEALTHY PELVIC FLOOR
How to Lift Safely with Prolapse
Protect your back and pelvic floor FOR LIFE by learning how to lift properly! This is essential and something that I wish every child would learn in school. Learn it for yourself, and then teach your kids (or grandkids) to make the world a healthier, stronger place. The keys: get close to the item you’re lifting, engage your pelvic floor first, and exhale with exertion.
How to Breathe
We take 17,000-20,000 breaths each day... make them count! Every breath is an opportunity to calm your mind, massage your digestive system, and mobilize (and strengthen) your core + pelvic floor. Tips: bring your breath down into your ribs, belly, and back... and don't try too hard! It can be all too easy to try super hard to "get it right," and then our deep breathing ends up feeling like a struggle (and makes us feel more stressed out). Instead, TRY SOFTER. Soften your ribs and belly, gently expand, and then slowly exhale. Ahhhhhh.... It should feel delicious. This video shows you how to breathe.
How to Exercise if You Have Prolapse
- Keep moving every day! Prolapse is NOT a reason to stop exercising, although you might need to modify your regular activities while you’re regaining core strength and control.
- Low-impact exercise (staying within a symptom-free zone) is recommended.
- Prime your core muscles with 10 minutes of pelvic floor friendly movement each day (see “Daily Practices,” above).
- Avoid most heavy weight lifting... for now!*
- Avoid high impact activities/sports... for now!*
- Avoid abdominal crunches and sit-ups… for now!*
*This is just “for now.” You can gradually re-introduce many sports successfully as you gain strength, control, and learn how to manage your intra-abdominal pressure.
All of these topics (and more) are covered, in-depth, in my Lift for Prolapse Relief program. Get started with it here, for FREE!
CONCLUSION AND PROGNOSIS
The best way to discover YOUR personal needs and staging is to self-evaluate (so that you KNOW YOURSELF) and then to FOLLOW UP with a women's health physical therapist. There is SO MUCH you can do conservatively (i.e. through exercise and lifestyle) to help manage your symptoms — and to help prevent progression of your condition — if you do, in fact, have prolapse! My "Lift" series is a great place to start, particularly when coupled with an individualized treatment program from a women's health PT.
If you think you have prolapse, then schedule a consultation with your gynecologist or with a women’s health PT. Here’s a link to a women’s health PT locator to help you find a provider in your area. Your provider will give you a solid diagnosis (including exactly how far advanced your prolapse is), and can provide you PERSONALIZED recommendations re: the next best steps.
Last words of caution/advice:
Just like every person is different, so too is every HEALTHCARE PROVIDER different. If you are not satisfied with the evaluation or examination you receive from one provider, then don't be afraid to seek a second opinion.
Advocate for yourself! If you feel like something is "off" in your body, then LISTEN. If you feel blown off by a provider who says your prolapse is "normal" and just something you have to live with, then find someone else who can help.
If your provider says surgery is the only option but you think you can heal yourself naturally, then TRUST YOURSELF. It's at least worth trying! Many women have resolved their prolapse symptoms with conservative treatment, and there is hope for you, too.
Sending light and love… And don’t forget to grab your first week of Lift for FREE!!!
Dr. Brianne Grogan, PT, DPT
With over 20 million views (and counting) on YouTube, articles featured on MindBodyGreen, courses on DailyOM, and a 5-star reviewed podcast and book, Brianne Grogan is a leading voice in the field of pelvic health and wellness. She is loved by her viewers for her down-to-earth, compassionate approach and for making pelvic floor fitness fun, mainstream, and accessible.
First Week of Lift FREE
Lift is a 5 week program designed to restore your pelvic floor and resolve your prolapse. Dr. Bri shares the practical, step-by-step approach she used to heal her own prolapse symptoms using her signature approach of movement, lifestyle, and mindset. The daily routines require just 10-12 minutes a day!
How else may we help?
Vibrant Pelvic Health programs are not a substitute for individualized medical treatment; contact a physician and/or physical therapist in your area for one-on-one evaluation and a personalized treatment plan.