New tool helps women detect pelvic floor disorders

The Femfit is worn internally (Newshub.)
The Femfit is worn internally (Newshub.)

The hidden problem of prolapse and urine incontinence is being exacerbated because women are often too embarrassed to speak about the issue and get help, but help is on the way.

Fifty percent of women suffer some sort of pelvic floor disorder but experts say many are suffering unnecessarily.

Thirty-four-year-old Louise was a fit and active mum who took daily boot camp workouts until May this year when she had an unexpected uterine prolapse.

"It felt like my insides were trying to become my outsides," she says.

"I've always been very proactive about my health but I'd heard nothing about this. It flipped my world.

"If you want to run around and kick a ball with your kids you've got to think about what's happening. If you want to just jump on a bike and go ride with them, or just backpack that country, it affects every part of your life. Just unload the groceries, no, you can't carry two bags at a time you've got to carry one. It was a pretty sharp change in lifestyle."

Between 10 and 20 percent of women will need surgery for prolapse in their lifetime and one in four women will suffer from urine leakage.

But a team of clinicians and scientists in Auckland have come up with an innovative device that could help.  It's effectively a fitness tracker for your pelvic floor.

The Femfit is worn internally.  Bluetooth sensors measure how your pelvic floor muscles are working throughout the day and send the information to your phone or tablet.

"That information is critical if you're wanting to know what is happening during a particular exercise that you're doing that provokes leakage," says lead researcher Dr Jenny Kruger from the University of Auckland.

It can tell you how strong your muscles are, how strong they should be, and whether you're exercising them correctly.

Dr Kruger says in many cases pelvic floor disorders can be easily fixed.

"Unfortunately it's often normalised, it's considered part of aging or part of what happens to you after you've had your babies, and all you have to do is buy something to protect yourself, but that need not be the case."

She says engaging women with their pelvic floor muscles can go a long way to solving a lot of the problems.

It's something Louise wishes she'd been told about, so now she's encouraging others to take preventative measures.

"I wish I'd done something so it didn't happen, but it has," she says.

"Go to a woman's health physio and get checked out, regardless of whether you have any symptoms.  Then you know you can do something about it if there's a problem, before it becomes a problem you can't undo."

Urogynaecologist Jackie Smalldridge says prolapse and incontinence can have a huge impact on people's lives.

"It can cause social isolation, low self-esteem, a lack of ability to exercise."

An estimated 500,000 New Zealanders suffer from urinary incontinence and 60 percent are women.  It's estimated to cost over $2 billion a year in personal costs, treatment and lost productivity.

"With incontinence, the first line of treatment would be pelvic floor physiotherapy, which can be very effective in about 50 percent of women, and for women that don't get help with that there are operations we can do that are very successful," says Dr Smalldridge.

"Again mild and moderate prolapses can be helped with pelvic floor physio, then the more severe ones need surgery."

She says it often takes just one woman to speak up to inspire others to get help.

"I've had a whole netball team and a whole book club come," says Dr Smalldridge.

"The problem is, it's not talked about enough," says Dr Kruger.

"We should view it a bit like looking after our teeth.  So you brush your teeth every night and you look after your teeth so you have them till you're an old lady and the same applies to our pelvic floors, we should be looking after our pelvic floors every day."

The FemFit is undergoing clinical trials in Canada.

It's hoped to help women improve their pelvic floor health and clinicians say it could also help to improve surgical outcomes.

By speaking out, Louise hopes it will encourage more women to get help, and prevent others getting problems in the first place.