When Kegel exercises trended with the promise to create strong AF vaginas, I committed to the Hulk-ifying ritual myself.
I started squeezing away: while I checked my email, at red lights, while using the loo… Really, anytime I thought about my vagina, I Kegeled. And as a sex writer, that’s often.
That is, until a pelvic floor therapist diagnosed me with having a hypertonic pelvic floor. Basically, a pelvic floor that’s always flexed (read: tense).
The culprit? You know it — too much coochie clenching.
According to somatic sex expert Kiana Reeves, this is a rather common problem for folks with vaginas. “There’s a misconception that Kegels are a cure-all for the pelvic floor,” she says.
She also notes, doing Kegels incorrectly can create or worsen tension in the pelvic floor without actually strengthening the parts of the musculature that are weak. Great.
And because I care about the health and vitality of my muff as well as yours (you’re welcome), I asked Reeves and Heather Jeffcoat, a doctor of physical therapy who specializes in sexual dysfunction and incontinence, to explain WTH a hypertonic pelvic floor is and what Kegels may (or may not) solve.
“A lot of folks [normally clench] their pelvic floors at all times,” says Reeves. That’s right: At. All. Times. The pelvic floor, she explains, is like our jaw. It’s a common place for folks to hold stress and tension.
“The pelvic floor can enter a state of chronic tension, creating what is known as hypertonic pelvic floor,” says Reeves.
Jeffcoat also mentions the little things add up too. Frequently holding in pee or doing weight-bearing exercises can result in those muscles getting turned “on” — and staying on.
Constant clutching can make relaxing not just tough but impossible. Especially if you have certain health conditions like endometriosis, irritable bowel syndrome, vaginal tearing from pregnancy, or vulvodynia.
Chronic pelvic floor tension can host a slew of symptoms, such as:
- painful penetration
- back/hamstring/pelvic pain
- painful urination
- nerve impingement
Unfortunately because Kegels are lauded as the thing all “responsible” vagina-owners should be doing, many folks with hypertonic pelvic floors (diagnosed or not) can worsen their condition and their symptoms by doing Kegels.
Sure, Kegels can benefit a weak pelvic floor, as well as counteract these symptoms:
- rectal, uteral, and bowel prolapse/collapse
- urinary and fecal incontinence
- halt your ability to orgasm
- hip, lower-back, and pelvic pain
But there’s one thing people often forget to do when Kegeling. “Kegels involve contracting the muscles in the pelvic floor, holding for a second or longer, and then relaxing,” says Reeves.
The step many people miss? Relaxing.
“Someone with a healthy pelvic floor is able to fully engage their PC muscles, and fully relax them as well,” adds Reeves.
Luckily, pelvic floor tension doesn’t have to be a permanent condition.
“The pelvic floor muscles are just like any other voluntary muscle in the body, so we can treat them in a similar fashion as we’d treat other muscles: with manual therapy, corrective exercises and nervous system relaxation,” explains Jeffcoat.
The first step? Actually becoming aware of where the tension is.
For that, Reeves recommends intravaginal massage and mapping. “Placing pressure against your intravaginal muscles, or having a pelvic floor therapist do it, can help you realize which muscles in the pelvic floor are in a state of tension.”
This combined with down-regulation breathing (aka a slow inhale and exhale through your nose), can give your nervous system the permission it needs to soften those muscles.
Jeffcoat also recommends incorporating meditation and intentional breathing exercises into your daily regime regardless of whether or not there’s a finger in there.
“Working on slow, deep belly breathing, where the focus is imagining the pelvic floor passively lengthening as you inhale and gently coming to rest during your exhale is another great early exercise to begin unwinding the build up of tension in the area,” she says.
Another option? A vaginal dilator program. “This is a more advanced option and allows folks to do specific internal stretching and massage techniques to help aid in muscle relaxation,” Jeffcoat explains.
However, this is typically done with the help of a pelvic floor therapist — which she and Reeves recommend for any folks experiencing any of the symptoms associated with pelvic floor hypertension.
Quit doing Kegels willy-nilly. Especially, if the above symptoms sound familiar — and if they do, ring up a body-worker or pelvic floor therapist, because this condition is highly treatable.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Follow her on Instagram.