Pelvic floor physical therapists specialize in the muscles, nerves and connective tissues that live between your legs, also known as the pelvic floor. They gain their expertise through a series of post-graduate continuing education classes, certifications, and training. Their training allows them to perform both internal and external pelvic exams, and broadens their knowledge of conditions which affect the pelvic floor. Sometimes, people who specialize in modalities like biofeedback or dilator therapy, advertise themselves as pelvic floor therapists, but don’t have any hands on experience treating the sensitive and often reactive muscles of the pelvic floor. If you are seeking pelvic floor physical therapy, it is important to enquire about the experience and level of training your potential physical therapist has had in this specialty.
Home exercise programs are essential for each patient. In the case of weakness, a patient will require more pelvic floor, core and functional strengthening and stability exercises. For overactive and pain conditions, the HEP typically consists of relaxation techniques, self-massages (both external and internal), gentle stretching, cardiovascular fitness as tolerated, and eventually pain-free core stability exercises. Both require postural and behavioral modifications and self-care strategies. For more information and detail, check out the book: Heal Pelvic Pain, by Amy Stein or her DVD: Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain here.
What sets pelvic floor physical therapists apart is their in depth understanding of the muscles and surrounding structures of the pelvic floor, beyond what was taught in physical therapy graduate school. What that means for a patient who is seeking the help of a pelvic floor physical therapist, is that his or her pelvic floor issues will be examined and treated comprehensively with both internal and external treatment, provide them with lifestyle modifications to help remove any triggers, and receive specific exercises and treatment to help prevent the reoccurrence of pain once he or she has been successfully treated.
Building and maintaining a strong pelvic floor is crucial for women of all ages. The pelvic floor is a group of muscles at the bottom of your pelvis that supports the womb, bladder, and bowels. So if these muscles become weak—whether it's due to childbirth, pregnancy, aging, or weight gain—it may be challenging to control your bladder and bowel activity. This is referred to as incontinence, a condition that affects nearly 25 million Americans, 75% to 80% of which are women.
The therapist may do manual therapy or massage both externally and internally to stabilize your pelvis before using other kinds of treatment. Manual therapy takes time and patience, and may require one to three sessions per week, depending on the technique used and your response to treatment. You may feel worse initially. However, many patients see improvement after six to eight weeks.
Electromyography (EMG)/ Pudendal Nerve Motor Latency Testing: These are tests that check to determine how the nerves of the pelvic floor are working. Pudendal nerve motor latency tests evaluate just the pudendal nerve, while EMG is a more complex testing of several nerves in the anal sphincter and pelvic floor. These tests may require needles and small doses of electricity.
Stephanie Prendergast, a pelvic floor physical therapist who is a co-founder and LA’s clinical director of the Pelvic Health & Rehabilitation Center, says that while information on pelvic floor issues isn’t always easily accessible, doctors can spend some time online looking at medical journals and learning about different disorders so they can better treat their patients.
Hip bridges: Engage your abdominals and pelvic floor before you start to bridge up, then bring the hipbones up to the sky. Then hollow out even more and really engage the pelvic floor. Then slowly lower your back to the mat, starting with your upper back, middle back, then lower back. Once you reach the mat, you can release your pelvic floor, and then re-engage as you do this move again.
Biofeedback is a modality that allows you to learn how to better control your muscles for optimal function. Biofeedback shows you what your muscles are doing in-real time. It is helpful to teach patients to lengthen and relax the pelvic floor for issues like general pelvic pain, painful sexual activity and constipation or to contract the pelvic floor in order to prevent leakage with activities like coughing, laughing, lifting, running or moving heavy objects. However, biofeedback does not demonstrate shortened muscles and tissues; therefore, in certain cases the biofeedback may seem to be within normal limits but yet the patient has 10/10 pain. In these incidences, manual palpation is more appropriate to identify restricted and shortened tissues and muscles, and myofascial trigger points.
Some pelvic floor physical therapists may have the opportunity of getting a lot of time to speak one-on-one with a patient to determine possible causes of his or her symptoms, educate the patient and to guide them to other practitioners who may optimize their physical therapy results if necessary. We truly can find out so much by just listening to what our patients have to say. A fall, or infection can be significant as well as a patient’s feelings and knowledge about their current condition.
Kegels: American gynecologist Arnold Kegel created this seminal pelvic floor exercise. To do a Kegel, contract your muscles that stop the flow of urine, hold for five seconds, then release for five seconds. Repeat this exercise 10–15 times, up to three times per day. Avoid doing Kegel exercises when urinating since stopping the flow midstream can cause some urine to remain in your bladder, putting you at a higher risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs).