Functional Anatomy of the Female Pelvic Floor


Address for correspondence: James A. Ashton-Miller, Biomechanics Research Laboratory, Department of Mechanical Engineering, G.G. Brown 3208, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2125. Voice: +734-763-2320; fax: +734-763-9332.


Abstract: The anatomic structures in the female that prevent incontinence and genital organ prolapse on increases in abdominal pressure during daily activities include sphincteric and supportive systems. In the urethra, the action of the vesical neck and urethral sphincteric mechanisms maintains urethral closure pressure above bladder pressure. Decreases in the number of striated muscle fibers of the sphincter occur with age and parity. A supportive hammock under the urethra and vesical neck provides a firm backstop against which the urethra is compressed during increases in abdominal pressure to maintain urethral closure pressures above the rapidly increasing bladder pressure. This supporting layer consists of the anterior vaginal wall and the connective tissue that attaches it to the pelvic bones through the pubovaginal portion of the levator ani muscle, and the uterosacral and cardinal ligaments comprising the tendinous arch of the pelvic fascia. At rest the levator ani maintains closure of the urogenital hiatus. They are additionally recruited to maintain hiatal closure in the face of inertial loads related to visceral accelerations as well as abdominal pressurization in daily activities involving recruitment of the abdominal wall musculature and diaphragm. Vaginal birth is associated with an increased risk of levator ani defects, as well as genital organ prolapse and urinary incontinence. Computer models indicate that vaginal birth places the levator ani under tissue stretch ratios of up to 3.3 and the pudendal nerve under strains of up to 33%, respectively. Research is needed to better identify the pathomechanics of these conditions.