What Is Vaginal Prolapse?
The network of muscles, ligaments, and skin in and around a woman's vagina acts as a complex support structure that holds pelvic organs, and tissues in place. This support network includes the skin and muscles of the vaginal walls (a network of tissues called the fascia). Various parts of this support system may eventually weaken or break, causing a common condition called vaginal prolapse.
Vaginal prolapse is a condition in which structures such as the uterus, rectum, bladder, urethra, small bowel, or the vagina itself may begin to prolapse, or fall out of their normal positions. Without medical treatment or surgery, these structures may eventually prolapse farther and farther into the vagina or even through the vaginal opening if their supports weaken enough.
The symptoms that result from vaginal prolapse commonly affect sexual function as well as bodily functions such as urination and defecation. Pelvic pressure and discomfort are also common symptoms.
The following are types of vaginal prolapse:
- Rectocele (prolapse of the rectum): This type of vaginal prolapse involves a prolapse of the back wall of the vagina (rectovaginal fascia). When this wall weakens, the rectal wall pushes against the vaginal wall, creating a bulge. This bulge may become especially noticeable during bowel movements.
- Cystocele (prolapse of the bladder, dropped bladder): This can occur when the front wall of the vagina (pubocervical fascia) prolapses. As a result, the bladder may prolapse into the vagina. When this condition occurs, the urethra usually prolapses as well. A urethral prolapse is also called a urethrocele. When both the bladder and urethra prolapse, this condition is known as a cystourethrocele. Urinary stress incontinence (urine leakage during coughing, sneezing, exercise, etc) is a common symptom of this condition.
- Enterocele (herniated small bowel): The weakening of the upper vaginal supports can cause this type of vaginal prolapse. This condition primarily occurs following a hysterectomy. An enterocele results when the front and back walls of the vagina separate, allowing the intestines to push against the vaginal skin.
- Prolapsed uterus (womb): This involves a weakening of a group of ligaments called the uterosacral ligaments at the top of the vagina. This causes the uterus to fall, which commonly causes both the front and back walls of the vagina to weaken as well. The following are stages of uterine prolapse:
- First-degree prolapse: The uterus droops into the lower portion of the vagina.
- Second-degree prolapse: The uterus falls to the level of the vaginal opening.
- Third-degree prolapse: The cervix, which is located at the bottom of the uterus, sags to the vaginal opening and protrudes outside the body. This condition is also called procidentia, or complete prolapse.
- Fourth-degree prolapse: The entire uterus protrudes entirely outside the vagina. This condition is also called procidentia, or complete prolapse.
- Vaginal vault prolapse: This type of prolapse may occur following a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus). Because the ligaments surrounding the uterus provides support for the top of the vagina, this condition is common after a hysterectomy. In vaginal vault prolapse, the top of the vagina gradually falls toward the vaginal opening. This may cause the walls of the vagina to weaken as well. Eventually, the top of the vagina may protrude out of the body through the vaginal opening, ultimately turning the vagina inside out. A vaginal vault prolapse is often accompanied by an enterocele.
A large percentage of women develop some form of vaginal prolapse during their lifetime, most commonly following menopause, childbirth, or a hysterectomy. Most women who develop this condition are older than 40 years of age. Many women who develop the symptoms of a vaginal prolapse do not seek medical help because of embarrassment or other reasons. Some women who develop a vaginal prolapse do not experience symptoms.
Last Reviewed 11/17/2017
George Lazarou, MD, FACOG
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