SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- The ligaments and muscles that support the pelvic organs sometimes stretch and cause these organs to drop down. This is called a ‘pelvic organ prolapse’.
- Risk factors include pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, repetitive heavy lifting, and regularly straining on the toilet to pass bowel motions (poo).
- You can do many things to prevent or manage a prolapse yourself.
What is pelvic organ prolapse?
Sometimes the ligaments and muscles that support the pelvic organs stretch and cause these organs to drop down. This is called a ‘pelvic organ prolapse’.
There are different types of pelvic organ prolapse, including uterine prolapse and bladder and bowel prolapse (vaginal prolapse).
A uterine prolapse is when the uterus (womb) and cervix (the opening to the uterus) drop down towards the vaginal entrance and may even protrude outside the vagina.
Bladder and bowel prolapse (vaginal prolapse)
Bladder prolapse (cystocele) is when the bladder bulges into the front wall of the vagina.
Bladder and bowel prolapses usually happen together, but they can happen on their own. This type of prolapse is also known as ‘vaginal prolapse’ because the walls of the vagina become overstretched and bulge down towards the vaginal entrance.
Symptoms of a prolapse
The symptoms of a prolapse depend on the severity of the prolapse and your general health.
Symptoms can include:
- needing to wee more often or straight after weeing
- needing to go to the toilet quickly
- inability to control your wee or poo ()
- inability to completely empty your bladder or bowel when going to the toilet
- straining to wee or poo
- a slow flow of wee that may stop and start.
There may also be:
- a feeling of fullness or pressure inside the vagina
- a sensation of vaginal ‘dragging’ or ‘heaviness’
- a feeling of swelling or a lump at the vaginal opening.
In severe cases, the vaginal wall or cervix may protrude outside the vaginal entrance.
What causes a prolapse?
Anything that puts pressure on your pelvic floor muscles can cause a prolapse.
- and childbirth
- regularly straining when trying to do a poo
- being overweight or obese
- coughing due to smoking or chronic lung disease
- repetitive lifting of heavy weights at work, home or .
The risk of prolapse increases:
- with previous pelvic or gynaecological surgery
- if you have a connective tissue disorder (such as Ehlers Danos syndrome or )
- after menopause when oestrogen levels drop, causing to lose elasticity.
Note that being sexually active does not cause or worsen prolapse.
Prolapse is usually diagnosed by your doctor after discussing your symptoms and medical history. They will also do a physical pelvic examination to check:
- the degree of prolapse
- how well the pelvic floor muscles are working
- which organs are involved in the prolapse.
You may also need other tests including:
- a pelvic – to check for masses or
- a function test (urodynamics) – to check for different types of
- a bladder scan – to check if urine is left in the bladder (residual urine) after going to the toilet
- a midstream urine test – to check for a .
Stages of prolapse
The severity of prolapse is measured using the POP-Q system to understand the stages of prolapse. Stages 1 to 4 are defined by how far the prolapse comes down into the vagina.
Treatment and management
Without intervention, symptoms of prolapse will usually get worse over time. Treatment and management will depend on the severity of the prolapse and how much it interferes with your daily life.
Mild and moderate prolapse
If you have a mild or moderate prolapse (stages 1 and 2), regular sessions with a pelvic floor physiotherapist will help.
If the prolapse is more severe, you may need to try different approaches, including pessaries or surgery.
A pessary is a device that health professionals insert into your vagina to support the pelvic organs. They are a non-surgical way of managing prolapse. Pessaries are available in different shapes and sizes. The most common type is a ring pessary.
Surgery may involve removing excess tissue and repairing your vagina with dissolvable or permanent stitches. Surgery may also involve reinforcing the connective tissues in your pelvis (i.e. between the bladder, vagina and bowel). In some cases, surgery may involve removing your uterus ().
What you can do
There are practical things you can do to reduce the risk of prolapse. These may also help you to recover well after a prolapse or surgery.
Doing pelvic floor exercises every day is also important, including squeezing up pelvic floor muscles before lifting, coughing, laughing and sneezing. A pelvic floor physiotherapist can show you how to do this.