Despite advances in medicine and technology, childbirth isn’t likely to get much easier on women
Engineers at The University of Texas at Austin and University of Vienna revealed in new research a series of evolutionary trade-offs that have created a near-perfect balance between supporting childbirth and keeping organs intact on a day-to-day basis. The size of the pelvic floor and canal is key to keeping this balance. These opposing duties have constrained the ability of the pelvic floor to evolve over time to make childbirth easier because doing that would sacrifice the ability to protect organs. “Although this dimension has made childbirth more difficult, we have evolved to a point where the pelvic floor and canal can balance supporting internal organs while also facilitating childbirth and making it as easy as possible,” said Krishna Kumar, an assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering who led the research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A larger pelvic floor and canal would facilitate easier childbirth. But the larger it becomes without additional bones or tissue to support it, the more likely it is to deform under the weight of organs and cause them to fall downward. These trade-offs, referred to as the pelvic floor hypothesis, were known in the scientific community. But the theory had been difficult to test until this research team used engineering tools to investigate it.
In addition to studying the size of the pelvic floor, the researchers also looked at thickness. In theory, a thicker pelvic floor could continue to support organs and an expanded size for childbirth. But it did not turn out that way. “We found that thicker pelvic floors would require quite a bit higher intra-abdominal pressures than humans are capable of generating to stretch during childbirth,” said Nicole Grunstra, an affiliated researcher at the University of Vienna’s Unit for Theoretical Biology in the Department of Evolutionary Biology. “Pelvic floor thickness appears to be another evolutionary ‘compromise,’ in addition to the size of the birth canal.” Kumar used a Finite Element analysis, a computerized model often deployed to test the design of structures to see whether they will break or wear down when facing high levels of pressure and stress. In this case, Finite Element analysis allowed the team to model the pelvic floor, change its parameters and see how it responds to the stresses of childbirth and protecting organs, which is otherwise impossible to test using clinical data.
Source: University of Texas at Austin news release