Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Pelvic organ prolapse can run in the family

In Brief

Pelvic organ prolapse can run in the family

Pelvic organ prolapse, a common disorder in women, is most often attributed to multiple vaginal births, which can damage the muscles and tissues that support the pelvic organs. Research conducted in pairs of sisters suggests that some women inherit a predisposition to developing pelvic organ prolapse. This could help explain why prolapse sometimes occurs in women who have never given birth — and doesn't occur in most women who do.

In pelvic organ prolapse, the uterus, bladder, urethra, or rectum protrude into weak spots in the vagina. Pressure, pain, difficulty urinating or defecating, and sexual problems may result. More than 10% of women in the United States have some degree of prolapse, and 300,000 women undergo surgery each year to correct it.

To investigate the roles of vaginal delivery and family history in pelvic organ prolapse, researchers at the University of Rochester recruited 101 pairs of postmenopausal sisters; in each pair, one sister had given birth vaginally at least once and the other had never given birth. All of the women answered questions about their medical history and underwent physical examinations to assess the degree of prolapse; stages 0 and I were considered normal, and stages II, III, and IV were deemed prolapse. If prolapse differed by two or more stages within a sister pair, their status was called "discordant"; if there was little or no difference, it was called "concordant."

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