Women who have experienced the process of childbirth understand that carrying a child is a nine-month marathon, full of ups-and-downs, joys and sorrows, and significant physical changes. Physical therapy can play a powerful role in postpartum physical recovery.
Physical therapists are trained to restore and strengthen muscular functioning postpartum, and some are specially trained to address pelvic floor issues. If you are experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction, or want to speed up muscular strengthening after childbirth, postpartum physical therapy is often an ideal option.
Here’s what you should know.
Is Postpartum Physical Therapy Important?
In short, we think so! Although not mandated in the United States, many American experts stress the benefits of postpartum pelvic physical therapy for new moms after a 6-week recovery period. Other countries, such as France, incorporate pelvic floor physical therapy into a woman’s standard postpartum care.
In recent years, the “fourth trimester” concept has risen in prominence and acceptance – the idea that women and newborn children should receive care and assistance through the first 12 weeks postpartum, often including physical therapy.
“According to the [fourth trimester] task force,” the American Physical Therapy Association writes, “the fourth-trimester concept stands in contrast to the practice of an ‘arbitrary’ single encounter with a primary care provider, often at 6 weeks after giving birth.”
Carrie Pagliano, president of the APTA Section on Women’s Health wrote:
Physical therapy has played a role in the postpartum health of women for many years; however, patient access to care was often limited to mothers who have a referring provider having prior experience with physical therapy, or it was simply left to the patient to find her own answers for her postpartum issues… Formal recognition of physical therapy in the fourth trimester not only recognizes our expertise in this area of care but provides a clearly stated standard of care for physicians providing postpartum care options for their patients.
What is the Goal of Postpartum Physical Therapy?
The goal of postpartum physical therapy is to address spinal and pelvic floor dysfunction along with muscle weakness resulting from nine months of development, followed by a birthing experience. Postpartum physical therapy is designed to accentuate the body’s natural postpartum healing processes and potentially address unique muscular issues.
Many women, juggling dozens of responsibilities, simple do not have the proper time to completely rest and recover from childbirth before returning to everyday life – postpartum physical therapy services offer the care needed to function with increased strength in a shorter period of time.
Common Signs of Pelvic Floor Muscular Dysfunction
Although not “normal,” postpartum pelvic floor issues are relatively common, especially among women who have given birth multiple times. How do you know if your pelvic floor muscles are functioning improperly? The following symptoms could point to dysfunction:
- Stress incontinence (leaking urine when you sneeze or perform sudden movement)
- Pelvic, abdominal, or lower back pain
- Abnormal urinary patterns (significantly increased/ decreased frequency)
- Bowel issues
- Pain during intercourse
If you have lingering symptoms similar to those listed above, consult a trusted pelvic floor physical therapist for information on recovery.
What Treatment Options Are Included in Postpartum PT?
Your first postpartum physical therapy appointment may include a get-to-know-you consultation period where your specialist will learn about you, your symptoms, your goals, and your level of physical activity before childbirth. Then, your physical therapist will develop an exercise plan based on your specific needs.
Some common treatment options include:
- Muscle energy techniques
- Diastasis recti correction (separation of abdominal muscles)
- Postural strengthening
- Pelvic floor muscle coordination and strength training
- Body mechanics education
- Core strengthening exercises
Your physical therapist may also recommend self-management strategies to complete at home. Even basic adjustments to regular home activities can expediate healing.
While some women hope to dive right back into normal physical activity and get back into pre-pregnancy shape, a slow return to normal physical exertion is best.
1. Get Help
The first step to recovery at home is recruiting help! Postpartum moms should not return to all regular activities around the house as soon as she and baby get home. In fact, women should not lift anything heavier than baby during the recovery period. Find an ally to help with household chores, such as cleaning, and focus on resting. If activity is required, only engage in mild endeavors.
2. Perform Therapist-Recommended Core Exercises
During pregnancy, a woman’s abdominal muscles undergo significant strain, even separating in extreme cases (called diastasis recti). However, typical core-strengthening exercises, such as sit-ups, should be avoided immediately after childbirth. Intense core strengthening has the potential to further damage strained abdominal muscles.
On the other hand, your physical therapist may prescribe mild core exercises to perform at home. Beginning with gentle strengthening often leads to the ability to perform higher-intensity abdominal exercise, once approved by your doctor or physical therapist.
3. Gently Incorporate Fitness Into Your Daily Routine
As postpartum moms settle into a new routine, incorporating gentle fitness into the everyday schedule is beneficial. Remember, it is always best to start small and go at your own pace.
For example, start with taking short walks around the neighborhood with a spouse or friend once or twice a week. As your body continues to recover, distance and pace may increase. However, starting small and dedicating most free time to resting is best.
4. Remember to Breathe
During the developmental stages of childbirth, uterus growth pushes the diaphragm upward. Ultimately, this growth reduces the diaphragm’s working capacity. Your physical therapist will likely prescribe exercises to strengthen the diaphragm for return to full capacity.
Rock Valley Physical Therapy: Pelvic Health Specialists
At Rock Valley PT, our pelvic health physical therapists are passionate about serving struggling individuals who often feel misunderstood in the complexity of their problems – including new moms.