5 What does the research on athletes say?
Pelvic floor dysfunction is predominantly a problem in ‘high impact’ sports which are sports that involve running and jumping. This is because they increase intra-abdominal pressure and exert forces directly onto the pelvic floor (Reis et al., 2011).
How many female athletes experience pelvic floor dysfunction?
36% of female athletes experience urinary incontinence
44% experience stress incontinence
Athletes and active females have up to three times higher rates of urinary incontinence than sedentary women.
This figure of 36% may look high, but in reality it is hiding a far worse problem. This figure is taken from research across all sports, whereas actually in some sports figures report that around 80% of female athletes in that sport experience urinary incontinence.
Who is at risk?
Athletes in the following sports reported the highest incidences of urinary incontinence:
- Track and field athletics
Bo and Nygaard (2020) proposed the two opposing theories, as introduced in Activity 2, as to why athletes have a higher prevalence of pelvic floor dysfunction:
- Exercise stretches and weakens the pelvic floor because the muscle fibres and ligaments become damaged due to the forces applied on the pelvic floor and the repeated increases in intra-abdominal pressure.
- Exercise causes the pelvic floor muscles to become too strong. These muscles experience hypertrophy (increase in size) and become shorter and tighter. These changes may mean that the muscles no longer have the flexibility required to respond to changes in pressure. Not being able to resist pressure as effectively can lead to an increase prevalence in leaking.
Currently there is insufficient evidence to conclude that a functioning pelvic floor will improve performance; however we can categorically say that a dysfunctional pelvic floor is an unwelcome distraction for athletes and may even stop them from doing the sport or activity they love.