Childbirth is a beautiful experience, but it can also be a challenging one. Many women experience pelvic and genital problems after childbirth, which can take a toll on their sex lives. However, according to a recent doctoral thesis, supervised exercise can help alleviate these issues.
It’s common for women to experience problems with their pelvic and genital areas after childbirth. Merete Kolberg Tennfjord, a physiotherapist and doctoral candidate at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, states that through exercise, many women can relieve these symptoms.
In her doctoral thesis, Tennfjord followed 300 healthy first-time mothers during and up to one year after childbirth. Seven out of ten of these women still experienced genital problems 12 months after their pregnancy, and of those, 34% reported that these issues affected their sex lives.
Genital problems after childbirth are entirely normal. During pregnancy, the body undergoes hormonal and anatomical changes, such as a growing abdomen and increased pressure on the pelvis. Many women feel like their organs are pressing down on their genital area, and some may experience urine leakage. Additionally, due to hormones, the pelvic muscles and connective tissue that hold bones and muscles together become looser. It’s also common to feel tired and exhausted and have less desire for sex.
After childbirth, other problems may arise. Many women experience tears or more severe injuries to the genital area during delivery. Breastfeeding can also cause dry vaginal and genital mucous membranes.
“Sex can become painful for some women, while others may feel less sensation than before because their genital or pelvic floor muscles have stretched,” Tennfjord explains.
Exercise can help
As part of her doctoral thesis, Tennfjord examined whether exercise could reduce genital problems in first-time mothers. Previous studies have shown that exercise can prevent and treat urinary incontinence, but it’s unclear whether exercise can prevent or alleviate other common pregnancy symptoms.
In the study, around 90 women received a training program that they completed with a physiotherapist for one hour each week. They also did daily exercises at home. An equal control group did not receive any exercise program. The training began six weeks after childbirth and lasted four months. The program involved strengthening the entire body, including arms, legs, stomach, back, and buttocks – muscle groups that women typically need to strengthen after childbirth. Additionally, the women trained their pelvic floor muscles separately through kegel exercises (contracting the muscles around the vagina, urethra, and anus).
Fewer genital problems
Fewer women in the exercise group experienced genital problems, particularly those who had suffered severe injuries to their pelvic floor muscles during childbirth.
The most common issues women experienced included pain in the pelvic and genital areas, a feeling that the vagina was more open, and dryness and sensitivity in the genital area. Tennfjord believes that there should be more openness and information about these symptoms. If a woman has trouble contracting her pelvic floor muscles correctly or experiences other symptoms, she should seek the help of a physiotherapist. It can be difficult to perform these exercises correctly without guidance. Tennfjord also notes that other factors, including psychological ones, can impact sex life during this time.
“Women who exercise deserve recognition for their hard work. During the first year after childbirth, the mother is in a healing process. But most women return to a normal life and have a good sex life again,” says Merete Kolberg Tennfjord, who wrote the doctoral thesis on this topic.