May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month (#PelvicPainAware), supported by the International Pelvic Pain Society (www.pelvicpain.org). As physical therapists who specialize in abdomino-pelvic pain disorders, one of the toughest parts of the job is meeting men and women who have suffered with pelvic pain for years, only to be told by their doctors/healthcare providers that there is no help for them. It is not uncommon to meet a patient who has suffered for 5- 10 years without help before finding us. Musculoskeletal causes of abdomino-pelvic pain are treatable conditions and often times we can start to improve a patient’s symptoms within just a few visits. We are promoting Pelvic Pain Awareness Month because it is our mission to ensure that people know that help exists so they can start living richer and fuller lives. In honor of Pelvic Pain Awareness Month we want to take some time to explain what we do and how it can help with the symptoms of pelvic pain. Please read on to see how we can help you with your pain.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is very different than pelvic organ prolapse. Pelvic organ prolapse happens when the muscles holding a woman’s pelvic organs (uterus, rectum and bladder) in place loosen and become too stretched out. Pelvic organ prolapse can cause the organs to protrude (stick out) of the vagina or rectum and may require women to push them back inside.
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.
To assess the degree of dysfunction, three measurements must be taken into account. First, an anatomic landmark known as the pubococcygeal line must be determined, which is a straight line connecting the inferior margin of the pubic symphysis at the midline with the junction of the first and second coccygeal elements on a sagittal image. After this, the location of the puborectalis muscle sling is assessed, and a perpendicular line between the pubococcygeal line and muscle sling is drawn. This provides a measurement of pelvic floor descent, with descent greater than 2 cm being considered mild, and 6 cm being considered severe. Lastly, a line from the pubic symphysis to the puborectalis muscle sling is drawn, which is a measurement of the pelvic floor hiatus. Measurements of greater than 6 cm are considered mild, and greater than 10 cm severe. The degree of organ prolapse is assessed relative to the hiatus. The grading of organ prolapse relative to the hiatus is more strict, with any descent being considered abnormal, and greater than 4 cm being considered severe.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is a group of disorders that change the way people have bowel movements and sometimes cause pelvic pain. These disorders can be embarrassing to discuss, may be hard to diagnosis and often have a negative effect on quality of life. Symptoms vary by the type of disorder. Many general practitioners may not be familiar with pelvic floor dysfunction, and it may take a specialist, such as a colorectal surgeon, to discover the correct diagnosis.
One of the great benefits to skin rolling is it increases the circulation in the area to which it was applied. Often times, areas that are tight or restricted are receiving reduced blood flow and oxygen. By bringing blood flow to the area, toxins can be cleared and the healing contents of the blood are brought to the injured area. Skin rolling can also restore the mobility of surrounding joints and nerves, which can help to restore normal function. By allowing the skin to move more freely, pelvic congestion, heaviness and aching can be effectively treated.
Home exercise and therapy is also a mainstay of PFD rehabilitation. Because the goal of PFD therapy is to learn to control and, especially, relax the pelvic floor, therapists will teach you techniques for use at home to build on the therapies they do in their offices. This usually begins with general relaxation, stretching the leg and back muscles, maintaining good posture, and visualization—part of learning to sense your pelvic floor muscles and to relax them.
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.
It is essential that we, as pelvic floor physical therapists, also include other assessments when we are examining our patients for the very first time. We employ the tried and true physical therapy exam practices to determine if there is an underlying condition elsewhere in your body, such as a strength deficit or alignment issue that could be affecting your pelvic floor. It’s wild to think of it, but something as seemingly unrelated as a flat foot or a hip injury can be enough to set off pelvic and abdominal pain!
The pelvic floor muscles support various pelvic organs, including the bladder, prostate, rectum, and female reproductive organs. The muscles themselves are also involved in the functioning of the urinary and anal sphincters. When they are functioning normally, you are able to control your bowel and bladder movements by contracting and relaxing these muscles.
Visceral mobilization restores movement to the viscera or organs. As elucidated earlier in our blog, the viscera can affect a host of things even including how well the abdominal muscles reunite following pregnancy or any abdominal surgery. Visceral mobilization aids in relieving constipation/IBS symptoms, bladder symptoms, digestive issues like reflux, as well as sexual pain. Visceral mobilization can facilitate blood supply to aid in their function, allow organs to do their job by ensuring they have the mobility to move in the way they are required to perform their function, and to allow them to reside in the correct place in their body cavity. Evidence is beginning to emerge to demonstrate how visceral mobilization can even aid in fertility problems.
As many as 50 percent of people with chronic constipation have pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) — impaired relaxation and coordination of pelvic floor and abdominal muscles during evacuation. Straining, hard or thin stools, and a feeling of incomplete elimination are common signs and symptoms. But because slow transit constipation and functional constipation can overlap with PFD, some patients may also present with other signs and symptoms, such as a long time between bowel movements and abdominal pain.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can be diagnosed by history and physical exam, though it is more accurately graded by imaging. Historically, fluoroscopy with defecography and cystography were used, though modern imaging allows the usage of MRI to complement and sometimes replace fluoroscopic assessment of the disorder, allowing for less radiation exposure and increased patient comfort, though an enema is required the evening before the procedure. Instead of contrast, ultrasound gel is used during the procedure with MRI. Both methods assess the pelvic floor at rest and maximum strain using coronal and sagittal views. When grading individual organ prolapse, the rectum, bladder and uterus are individually assessed, with prolapse of the rectum referred to as a rectocele, bladder prolapse through the anterior vaginal wall a cystocele, and small bowel an enterocele.
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.
Once we determine the cause of our patient’s pelvic floor dysfunction, we design a plan tailored to the patient’s needs. At Beyond Basics, we have a diverse crew of physical therapists who bring their own training and background into each treatment. What is really beautiful about that, is that all teach and help each other grow as practitioners. It will be difficult to go over every single type of treatment in one blog post, but we will review some of the main staples of pelvic floor rehab.
If you have problems with constipation due to hard bowel movements or abdominal bloating and gas pain, then you should consult with your doctor and watch your diet closely. It’s important to drink plenty of water daily (>8 glasses) and eat a healthy diet. Foods that are high in fiber, or fiber supplements, may worsen your bloating symptoms and gas pains. These foods should be avoided if your symptoms get worse.
Neural mobilization as the name implies, involves the restoration of neural structures back to their normal mobility: to glide and slide. Neural structures that cannot move properly can cause pain that can radiate down an extremity or into the trunk and can give the sensation of burning, zinging, and stabbing. Some orthopedic therapists practice this type of mobilization; common examples include the sciatic nerve in the leg and the ulnar nerve in the arm. Pelvic floor PTs focus on these nerves when they cause issues, but they also pay attention to nerves that innervate the perineum and genital region (bicycle seat area), such as the pudendal, iliohypogastric, obturator, ilioinguinal, genitofemoral and the femoral cutaneous nerves. By allowing these nerves to move freely, symptoms such as vulvovaginal, penile, rectal, clitoral and testicular pain, itching and burning can be greatly improved.
Increases bladder and bowel control. The pelvic floor muscles are directly responsible for controlling urine and bowel movements. If these muscles are weak, you’re more likely to experience constipation, urinary incontinence, struggle to control flatulence, or experience urine leakage from forceful activities like when sneezing, coughing, or laughing (called “stress incontinence”). Strengthening your pelvic floor can improve your bowel and bladder control.