Mechanisms governing protective pregnancy-induced adaptations of the pelvic floor muscles in the rat preclinical model

Published:November 18, 2021DOI:


      The intrinsic properties of pelvic soft tissues in women who do and do not sustain birth injuries are likely divergent. However, little is known about this. Rat pelvic floor muscles undergo protective pregnancy-induced structural adaptations-sarcomerogenesis and increase in intramuscular collagen content-that protect against birth injury.


      We aimed to test the following hypotheses: (1) the increased mechanical load of a gravid uterus drives antepartum adaptations; (2) load-induced changes are sufficient to protect pelvic muscles from birth injury.

      Study Design

      The independent effects of load uncoupled from the hormonal milieu of pregnancy were tested in 3- to 4-month-old Sprague-Dawley rats randomly divided into the following 4 groups, with N of 5 to 14 per group: (1) load/pregnancy hormones (controls), (2) load+/pregnancy hormones, (3) reduced load/pregnancy hormones+, and (4) load+/pregnancy hormones+. Mechanical load of a gravid uterus was simulated by weighing uterine horns with beads similar to fetal rat size and weight. A reduced load was achieved by unilateral pregnancy after unilateral uterine horn ligation. To assess the acute and chronic phases required for sarcomerogenesis, the rats were sacrificed at 4 hours or 21 days after bead loading. The coccygeus, iliocaudalis, pubocaudalis, and nonpelvic tibialis anterior musles were harvested for myofiber and sarcomere length measurements. The intramuscular collagen content was assessed using a hydroxyproline assay. An additional 20 load+/pregnancy hormones rats underwent vaginal distention to determine whether the load-induced changes are sufficient to protect from mechanical muscle injury in response to parturition-associated strains of various magnitude. The data, compared using 2-way repeated measures analysis of variance followed by pairwise comparisons, are presented as mean±standard error of mean.


      An acute increase in load resulted in significant pelvic floor muscle stretch, accompanied by an acute increase in sarcomere length compared with nonloaded control muscles (coccygeus: 2.69±0.03 vs 2.30±0.06 μm, respectively, P<.001; pubocaudalis: 2.71±0.04 vs 2.25±0.03 μm, respectively, P<.0001; and iliocaudalis: 2.80±0.06 vs 2.35±0.04 μm, respectively, P<.0001). After 21 days of sustained load, the sarcomeres returned to operational length in all pelvic muscles (P>.05). However, the myofibers remained significantly longer in the load+/pregnancy hormones than the load/pregnancy hormones in coccygeus (13.33±0.94 vs 9.97±0.26 mm, respectively, P<.0001) and pubocaudalis (21.20±0.52 vs 19.52±0.34 mm, respectively, P<.04) and not different from load+/pregnancy hormones+ (12.82±0.30 and 22.53±0.32 mm, respectively, P>.1), indicating that sustained load-induced sarcomerogenesis in these muscles. The intramuscular collagen content in the load+/pregnancy hormones group was significantly greater relative to the controls in coccygeus (6.55±0.85 vs 3.11±0.47 μg/mg, respectively, P<.001) and pubocaudalis (5.93±0.79 vs 3.46±0.52 μg/mg, respectively, P<.05) and not different from load+/pregnancy hormones+ (7.45±0.65 and 6.05±0.62 μg/mg, respectively, P>.5). The iliocaudalis required both mechanical and endocrine cues for sarcomerogenesis. The tibialis anterior was not affected by mechanical or endocrine alterations. Despite an equivalent extent of adaptations, load-induced changes were only partially protective against sarcomere hyperelongation.


      Load induces plasticity of the intrinsic pelvic floor muscle components, which renders protection against mechanical birth injury. The protective effect, which varies between the individual muscles and strain magnitudes, is further augmented by the presence of pregnancy hormones. Maximizing the impact of mechanical load on the pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy, such as with specialized pelvic floor muscle stretching regimens, is a potentially actionable target for augmenting pregnancy-induced adaptations to decrease birth injury in women who may otherwise have incomplete antepartum muscle adaptations.

      Key words

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