Impact of pregnancy and parturition on the anal sphincters and pelvic floor
Incontinence and defecatory difficulties are commonly reported among women and are often ascribed to traumas sustained during childbirth. Specifically, injuries to the anal sphincters (tears) and conformational changes in the various structures that comprise the pelvic floor (prolapse and perineal descent) have been considered as important contributors to the development of anal incontinence, or difficult defaecation (straining, incomplete evacuation), in later life. An understanding of both the effects of pregnancy and parturition on these structures and the natural history of any traumas sustained are, therefore, of key importance. Unfortunately, the literature on these issues, though vast, is far from complete. While it is evident that pregnancy, per se, imposes changes, primarily through hormonal influences, on colonic, ano-rectal and pelvic floor physiology, the long-term impact of such effects is far from clear. Risk factors for the occurrence of significant, though often occult, anal sphincter injuries during birth have been identified and the role of these tears in the etiology of post-partum incontinence has been well delineated. In contrast, the contribution of such intra-partum events to the later onset of incontinence is far from clear and may well have been over-estimated.