If you’re experiencing incontinence or pelvic pain, a qualified pelvic floor physical therapist can identify exercises that are most likely to help you. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Pelvic floor physical therapy can be an extremely effective treatment option for incontinence, chronic pelvic pain, pain during sex and lots of other issues.

It also comes with fewer side effects than many medications and it poses fewer risks—and is less costly—than surgery.

If you experience leakage when you cough, laugh or sneeze or have trouble making it to the bathroom in time—or if you avoid sex due to pain during intercourse—you may want to talk to your doctor about pelvic floor physical therapy.

At the Spectrum Health Women’s Health & Wellness Center, pelvic floor physical therapists often see patients whose pelvic floor muscles and tissues are weak and elongated. (Or, on the flip side, the muscles and tissues may also be overactive and shortened.)

These conditions are common and they can come about as a result of childbirth, traumatic injury, repeated infections or lack of exercise.

About 1 in 3 women will experience stress incontinence at some point in her life and about 15% will experience urge incontinence.

“It’s important to know that incontinence and pelvic pain are not just a normal part of aging,” said Ciera Grevengoed, a pelvic floor physical therapist at the Women’s Health & Wellness Center. “Though they are common conditions, with the right treatments and therapies most women can resolve these issues.”

There are many different types of incontinence, but they can all be improved with physical therapy.

The most common cause of incontinence is weakened pelvic floor muscles, often tied to aging.

To treat weakened, overstretched pelvic floor muscles, a physical therapist will guide a patient through a carefully structured series of exercises, often combined with other therapies such as external and internal massage, biofeedback and electrical stimulation.

These approaches can help patients isolate the correct pelvic floor muscles and gradually build up muscle strength and flexibility.

Less commonly, incontinence can arise from shortened, overactive pelvic muscles, soft tissue dysfunctions or reflexive muscle guarding.

“Sometimes, when someone has had an injury, the pelvic muscles compensate long past the point where the injury has resolved,” Grevengoed said. “Their tissues retain the memory of the injury and stay contracted.”

If you’re experiencing incontinence or pelvic pain, a qualified pelvic floor physical therapist can help you determine which scenario applies to you and guide you through the exercises most likely to help.

“This is really an area where knowledge is power,” Grevengoed said. “A lot of people do their research on the internet, they learn about Kegel exercises and they think, ‘Oh, great. Problem solved.’

“But they do the exercises incorrectly or—if your muscles are tight and overactive—Kegels can actually make the problem worse,” she said.

To resolve issues, it’s important to properly strengthen and relax the correct muscles.

“This is what a pelvic floor physical therapist is uniquely qualified to do,” Grevengoed said.