PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Genitourinary prolapse occurs when there is descent of one or more of the pelvic organs including the uterus, bladder, rectum, small or large bowel, or vaginal vault. The anterior and/or posterior vaginal walls, the uterus and the vaginal vault can all be affected by this descent. There is resulting protrusion of the vaginal walls and/or the uterus. It is usually accompanied by urinary, bowel, sexual, or local pelvic symptoms.
The pelvic organs are mainly supported by the levator ani muscles and the endopelvic fascia (a connective tissue network connecting the organs to the pelvic muscles and bones). Genitourinary prolapse occurs when this support structure is weakened through direct muscle trauma, neuropathic injury, disruption or stretching. A multifactorial cause for this damage is likely. The orientation and shape of the bones of the pelvis have also been implicated in the pathogenesis of genitourinary prolapse. Studies of risk factors have often been contradictory in their results, and much is yet unclear.
Confirmed risk factors
- Increasing age
- Vaginal delivery
- Increasing parity
- Overweight (BMI 25-30) and obesity (BMI >30)
- Spina bifida and spina bifida occulta
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Possible risk factors
- Intrapartum variables (controversial and unproven):
- Fetal macrosomia
- Prolonged second stage of labour
- Anal sphincter injury
- Epidural anaesthesia
- Use of forceps
- Use of oxytocin
- Age <25 years at first delivery
- Race. Hispanic and Asian women had increased risk of cystocele and African-American women a reduced risk when compared with white women in one large American study.
- Family history of prolapse.
- Connective tissue disorders - eg, Marfan's syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
- Previous hysterectomy.
- Menopause: Although often assumed to be a risk factor, studies have found no convincing association between oestrogen status and prolapse.
- Some selective oestrogen-receptor modulators. This is not a class effect, and some may actually improve symptoms. Results of studies have been contradictory.
- Occupations involving heavy lifting.
- The incidence of genital prolapse is difficult to determine as many women do not seek medical advice.
- It is thought that some loss of uterovaginal support is present in most adult women. However, there is no consensus about what level of loss of uterovaginal support is 'normal' and what is abnormal. Most current review papers state that pelvic organ prolapse may occur in up to 50% of parous women.
- In the Women's Health Initiative Study, 41% of women aged 50-79 showed some degree of pelvic organ prolapse. 34% had a cystocele, 19% a rectocele and 14% uterine prolapse.
- In the UK, around 48,500 women have a hysterectomy each year, of which 15,000 are vaginal procedures. Of these, 8,000 are for vaginal prolapse. Prolapse is the most common reason for hysterectomy in women aged over 50.
- Hispanic and Asian women had increased risk of cystocele and African-American women a reduced risk when compared with white women in one study.
Types of genitourinary prolapse
Prolapse can occur in the anterior, middle, or posterior compartment of the pelvis.
Anterior compartment prolapse
- Urethrocele: prolapse of the urethra into the vagina. Frequently associated with urinary stress incontinence; other symptoms are infrequent.
- Cystocele: prolapse of the bladder into the vagina. An isolated cystocele rarely causes incontinence and usually leads to few or no symptoms. However, a large cystocele may cause increased urinary frequency, frequent urinary infections and produce a pressure sensation or mass at the introitus.
- Cystourethrocele: prolapse of both urethra and bladder.
Middle compartment prolapse
- Uterine prolapse: descent of the uterus into the vagina.
- Vaginal vault prolapse: descent of the vaginal vault post-hysterectomy. Often associated with cystocele, rectocele, and enterocele. With complete inversion, the urethra, bladder, and distal ureters may be included resulting in varying degrees of retention and distal ureteric obstruction.
- Enterocele: herniation of the pouch of Douglas (including small intestine/omentum) into the vagina. Small enteroceles are usually asymptomatic. Can occur following pelvic surgery. The neck of the hernial sac is usually sufficiently wide to make strangulation very rare. Can be difficult to differentiate clinically from rectocele but a cough impulse can be felt in enterocele on combined rectal and vaginal examination.
Posterior compartment prolapse
- Rectocele: prolapse of the rectum into the vagina.
Cystourethrocele is the most common type of prolapse, followed by uterine prolapse and then rectocele.
Classification of genitourinary prolapse
There are a number of classifications or grading systems in use.
The Pelvic Organ Prolapse Quantification (POPQ) system was devised by the International Continence Society. It is based on the position of the most distal portion of the prolapse during straining:
- Stage 0: no prolapse.
- Stage 1: more than 1 cm above the hymen.
- Stage 2: within 1 cm proximal or distal to the plane of the hymen.
- Stage 3: more than 1 cm below the plane of the hymen but protrudes no further than 2 cm less than the total length of the vagina.
- Stage 4: there is complete eversion of the vagina.
The degree of uterine descent can also be graded by the Baden-Walker or Beecham classification systems:
- 1st degree: cervix visible when the perineum is depressed - prolapse is contained within the vagina.
- 2nd degree: cervix prolapsed through the introitus with the fundus remaining in the pelvis.
- 3rd degree: procidentia (complete prolapse) - entire uterus is outside the introitus.
- Mild genital prolapse may be asymptomatic and an incidental finding. However, in other women, symptoms can severely affect their quality of life.
- Symptoms are related to the site and type of prolapse.
- Vaginal/general symptoms can be common to all types of prolapse.
- Sensation of pressure, fullness or heaviness.
- Sensation of a bulge/protrusion or 'something coming down'.
- Seeing or feeling a bulge/protrusion.
- Difficulty retaining tampons.
- Spotting (in the presence of ulceration of the prolapse).
- Feeling of incomplete bladder emptying.
- Weak or prolonged urinary stream.
- The need to reduce the prolapse manually before voiding.
- The need to change position to start or complete voiding.
- Loss of vaginal sensation.
- Vaginal flatus.
- Urgency of stool.
- Incontinence of flatus or stool.
- Incomplete evacuation.
- The need to apply digital pressure to the perineum or posterior vaginal wall to enable defecation (splinting).
- Digital evacuation necessary in order to pass a stool.
- Thorough history taking is needed to determine the patient's main symptoms and the effect of these on their daily life. Ask about coital difficulty.
- Examine the patient in both a standing and left lateral position if possible.
- Use a Sims' speculum inserted along the posterior vaginal wall to assess the anterior wall and vaginal vault and vice versa. Ask the patient to strain.
- A bivalve speculum can also be used to identify the cervix or vaginal vault. Ask the patient to strain, and slowly remove the speculum. Look for the degree of descent of the vaginal apex.
- Determine the parts of the vagina (anterior, posterior or apical) that the prolapse affects. Determine the degree of prolapse.
- Ulceration and hypertrophy of the cervix or vaginal mucosa with concomitant bleeding may be seen in women with prolapse that protrudes beyond the hymen.
- A rectal examination can be helpful if there are bowel symptoms.
- Diagnosis is usually clinical and based on history and examination.
- If there are urinary symptoms consider the following:
- Urinalysis ± a midstream specimen of urine (MSU).
- Post-void residual urine volume testing using a catheter or bladder ultrasound scan.
- Urodynamic investigations.
- Urea and creatinine.
- Renal ultrasound scan.
- If there are bowel symptoms consider the following:
- Anal manometry.
- Endo-anal ultrasound scan (to look for an anal sphincter defect if faecal incontinence is present).
- Most are of the opinion that no treatment is necessary if incidental asymptomatic mild prolapse is found. However, there is no evidence or consensus of opinion about whether or how to treat these women.
- The current management options for women with symptomatic genitourinary prolapse are:
- Vaginal pessary insertion
- However, the risks of surgery for some, even for advanced prolapse, may not be warranted.
- Watchful waiting. If a women reports little in the way of symptoms this is probably appropriate. Treatment may be needed if symptoms become troublesome or if complications such as obstructed defecation or urination, hydronephrosis or vaginal erosions develop.
- Lifestyle modification: including treatment of cough, smoking cessation, constipation and overweight and obesity. However, even though the association of prolapse with these lifestyle factors has been demonstrated, the role of lifestyle modification as a prevention or treatment of prolapse has not been investigated.
- Pelvic floor muscle exercises. The latest Cochrane review found some benefit for pelvic floor muscle training. There is also evidence that regular individual supervised training is more effective.
- Vaginal oestrogen creams. There is currently no convincing evidence that oestrogen in any form improves symptoms of prolapse. There is limited evidence that oestrogen creams before surgery may reduce the incidence of postoperative cystitis.
Vaginal pessary insertion
- A good alternative to surgery.
- Inserted into the vagina to reduce the prolapse, provide support and relieve pressure on the bladder and bowel.
- Made of silicone or plastic. A ring pessary is usually the first choice.
- Pessaries are effective:
- For short-term relief of prolapse prior to surgery.
- In the long term if surgery is not wanted or is contra-indicated.
- A 2013 Cochrane review found some evidence that pessaries are effective in around 60% of women. However, it notes there is no consensus on the best type of device to use, follow-up or pattern of replacement.
- Fitting a pessary:
- Ensure the patient's bladder and bowel are empty.
- Perform a bimanual examination and use the forefinger to estimate the size of the vagina.
- The aim is to fit the largest pessary that does not cause discomfort.
- The pessary fits well if a finger can be swept between the pessary and the walls of the vagina.
- Ask the patient to walk around, bend and micturate to ensure that the pessary is retained.
- How often to follow up: there is no clear consensus about how often to follow up women who have had a pessary fitted. If there are no symptoms, they are usually changed every 6-12 months.
- At each follow-up: ask about new symptoms. Examine the vagina for irritation and erosions. Change the pessary. If erosions are seen, remove the pessary and apply oestrogen cream. If the erosion does not heal, arrange biopsy.
- Complications: vaginal discharge and odour, vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistulas, faecal impaction, hydronephrosis, urosepsis. These tend to occur in women who are not regularly followed up.
- Surgery is very effective but a combination of procedures may be required and re-operation may be required.
- Indications for surgery are: failure of pessary, a patient who wants definitive treatment, prolapse combined with urinary or faecal incontinence.
- The choice of procedure will depend on whether the woman is sexually active, whether her family is complete, her general fitness, and surgeon's preference.
- Surgery may be by the abdominal route, or vaginal. Evidence supports the greater efficacy of the abdominal route.
- Mesh. Surgery may use a mesh or not. There are many types of mesh used, including biological grafts, absorbable synthetic mesh and non-absorbable synthetic mesh. There are concerns about the complications and long-term potential problems with mesh repairs. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance supports the use of mesh in abdominal surgery for apical pelvic organ prolapse, but there is less evidence for long-term safety with the use of mesh materials vaginally. Guidelines advise mesh procedures should only be carried out by gynaecologists with special expertise, should be audited, and that patients should be informed of the risks and the fact that there is uncertainty about long-term results:
- Types of surgery which necessitate the use of mesh include sacrocolpopexy, infracoccygeal sacropexy, uterine suspension sling, and colpoperineopexy.
- Types of surgery which do not use mesh include hysterectomy, cervical amputation, and uterine/vault suspension.
- If the prolapse remains corrected and the patient conceives, an elective caesarean section may be advisable.
- Generally women should avoid heavy lifting after surgery and avoid sexual intercourse for 6-8 weeks.
Surgery for bladder/urethral prolapse
- Anterior colporrhaphy: involves central plication of the fibromuscular layer of the anterior vaginal wall. Mesh reinforcement may also be used. It is performed transvaginally. Intraoperative complications are uncommon but haemorrhage, haematoma, and cystotomy may occur.
- Colposuspension: performed for urethral sphincter incontinence associated with a cystourethrocele. The paravaginal fascia on either side of the bladder neck and the base of the bladder are approximated to the pelvic side wall by sutures placed through the ipsilateral iliopectineal ligament.
Surgery for uterine prolapse
- Hysterectomy: a vaginal hysterectomy has the advantage that no abdominal incision is needed, thereby reducing pain and hospital stay. This can be combined with anterior or posterior colporrhaphy.
- Open abdominal or laparoscopic sacrohysteropexy: this can be performed if the woman wishes to retain her uterus. The uterus is attached to the anterior longitudinal ligament over the sacrum. Mesh is used to hold the uterus in place.
- Sacrospinous fixation: unilateral or bilateral fixation of the uterus to the sacrospinous ligament. Performed via vaginal route. This has a lower success rate than sacrohysteropexy. There is risk of injury to the pudendal nerve and vessels and the sciatic nerve.
Surgery for vault prolapse
- Sacrospinous fixation: unilateral or bilateral fixation of the vault to the sacrospinous ligament. Performed via vaginal route. There is risk of injury to the pudendal nerve and vessels and the sciatic nerve. This may have a higher failure rate but a lower perioperative mortality than sacrocolpopexy.
- Laparoscopic or open abdominal mesh sacrocolpopexy: this has been found to be the most effective procedure in terms of low recurrence rate. A mesh is attached at one end to the longitudinal ligament of the sacrum and at the other to the top of the vagina and for a variable distance down the posterior and/or anterior vaginal walls.
- Iliococcygeal hitch: the vaginal vault is attached on both sides to the fascia of the iliococcygeus muscle. However, this procedure is not recommended by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), as it does not reduce the incidence of postoperative anterior wall prolapse.
Surgery for rectocele/enterocele
- Posterior colporrhaphy: involves levator ani muscle plication or by repair of discrete fascial defects. A mesh can be used for additional support. Levator plication may lead to dyspareunia.
Evidence confirms a transvaginal approach is more effective than transanal repairs.
- Corrects prolapse by moving the pelvic viscera back into the pelvis and closing off the vaginal canal. Known as colpocleisis.
- Vaginal intercourse is no longer possible.
- Advantages are that it is almost 100% effective in treating prolapse and has a reduced perioperative morbidity.
- It is not commonly carried out in Europe.
- Pre-operative counselling is essential.
- Ulceration and infection of organs prolapsed outside the vaginal introitus may occur.
- Urinary tract complications include stress incontinence, chronic retention and overflow incontinence, and recurrent urinary tract infections.
- Bowel dysfunction may occur with a rectocele.
- It has been traditionally assumed that left untreated, uterine prolapse will gradually worsen. There is some evidence, however, that this may not be the case, and that spontaneous remission may happen.
- Good prognosis is associated with young age, good physical health and a BMI within normal limits.
- Poorer prognosis is associated with older age, poor physical heath, respiratory problems (eg, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and obesity.
- Recurrence after pelvic organ repair surgery is estimated at 17% over 10 years, although this may be an underestimation.
Possible preventative measures include (trial evidence lacking for most):
- Good intrapartum care, including avoiding unnecessary instrumental trauma and prolonged labour.
- Hormone replacement therapy, although its role in preventing prolapse is uncertain.
- Pelvic floor exercises may prevent prolapse occurring secondary to pelvic floor laxity and are strongly advised before and after childbirth.
- Smoking cessation will reduce chronic cough.
- Weight loss if overweight or obese.
- Treatment of constipation throughout life.
Further reading & references
- Viera AJ, Larkins-Pettigrew M; Practical use of the pessary. Am Fam Physician. 2000 May 1;61(9):2719-26, 2729.
- Post-Hysterectomy Vaginal Vault Prolapse; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (July 2015)
- Doshani A, Teo RE, Mayne CJ, et al; Uterine prolapse. BMJ. 2007 Oct 20;335(7624):819-23.
- Jelovsek JE, Maher C, Barber MD; Pelvic organ prolapse. Lancet. 2007 Mar 24;369(9566):1027-38.
- Hendrix SL, Clark A, Nygaard I, et al; Pelvic organ prolapse in the Women's Health Initiative: gravity and gravidity. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2002 Jun;186(6):1160-6.
- Nygaard I, Bradley C, Brandt D; Pelvic organ prolapse in older women: prevalence and risk factors. Obstet Gynecol. 2004 Sep;104(3):489-97.
- Albertazzi P, Sharma S; Urogenital effects of selective estrogen receptor modulators: a systematic review. Climacteric. 2005 Sep;8(3):214-20.
- Thakar R, Stanton S; Management of genital prolapse. BMJ. 2002 May 25;324(7348):1258-62.
- Maher C, Feiner B, Baessler K, et al; Surgical management of pelvic organ prolapse in women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Apr 30;4:CD004014. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004014.pub5.
- The efficacy and safety of using mesh or grafts in surgery for uterine or vaginal vault prolapse; Review Body for Interventional Procedures, NICE, June 2008
- Hagen S, Stark D; Conservative prevention and management of pelvic organ prolapse in women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Dec 7;(12):CD003882. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003882.pub4.
- Hay-Smith EJ, Herderschee R, Dumoulin C, et al; Comparisons of approaches to pelvic floor muscle training for urinary incontinence in women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Dec 7;(12):CD009508. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009508.
- Hagen S, Stark D, Glazener C, et al; Individualised pelvic floor muscle training in women with pelvic organ prolapse (POPPY): a multicentre randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2013 Nov 27. pii: S0140-6736(13)61977-7. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61977-7.
- Ismail SI, Bain C, Hagen S; Oestrogens for treatment or prevention of pelvic organ prolapse in postmenopausal women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 Sep 8;(9):CD007063. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007063.pub2.
- Bugge C, Adams EJ, Gopinath D, et al; Pessaries (mechanical devices) for pelvic organ prolapse in women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Feb 28;2:CD004010. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004010.pub3.
- The use of mesh in gynaecological surgery. Scientific Impact Paper 19; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, April 2010
- Surgical repair of vaginal wall prolapse using mesh; NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline (June 2008)
- The Management of Post Hysterectomy Vaginal Vault Prolapse; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2007)
- Mesh sacrocolpopexy for vaginal vault prolapse; NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline (2007)
- Handa VL, Garrett E, Hendrix S, et al; Progression and remission of pelvic organ prolapse: a longitudinal study of menopausal women. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2004 Jan;190(1):27-32.
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Dr Michelle Wright
Dr Mary Harding
Dr John Cox