Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves applied through a wand or probe on your skin to produce an internal image or to help treat pain. Real-time ultrasound can let you see your pelvic floor muscles functioning and help you learn to relax them. Therapeutic ultrasound uses sound waves to produce deep warmth that may help reduce spasm and increase blood flow or, on a nonthermal setting, may promote healing and reduce inflammation.
A defecating proctogram is a test where you’re given an enema of a thick liquid that can be seen with an X-ray. Your provider will use a special video X-ray to record the movement of your muscles as you attempt to push the liquid out of the rectum. This will help to show how well you are able to pass a bowel movement or any other causes for pelvic floor dysfunction. This test is not painful.
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.
During the internal exam, your physical therapist will place a gloved finger into your vagina or rectum to assess the tone, strength, and irritability of your pelvic floor muscles and tissues. Internal exams and internal treatment are invaluable tools that are taught to pelvic floor physical therapists. It can tell us if there are trigger points (painful spots, with a referral pattern or local); muscle/tissue shortening; nerve irritation and/or bony malalignment that could be causing your pain directly or inhibiting the full function of your pelvic floor muscles. We can also determine if your pelvic floor has good coordination during the exam. A pelvic floor without good coordination, may not open and close appropriately for activities such as going to the bathroom, supporting our pelvis and trunk, sexual activity, and keeping us continent.
Strengthening weak pelvic floor muscles often helps a person gain better bowel and bladder control. A physical therapist can help you be sure you are doing a Kegel correctly and prescribe a home program to meet your individual needs. Diet modifications can also reduce urinary and fecal incontinence. Bladder re-training can decrease urinary frequency and help you regain control of your bladder.
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!
Physical therapists (PTs) are experts in movement and function, which sounds like a pretty broad topic to be an expert in, and it is. After physical therapists graduate PT school (now-a-days at the doctoral level), they find their niche and specialize. You can find PTs working with high-level athletes, children, infants, people who are recovering from injuries, people with neurological conditions and many other types of clients.
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.
Mechanistically, the causes of pelvic floor dysfunction are two-fold: widening of the pelvic floor hiatus and descent of pelvic floor below the pubococcygeal line, with specific organ prolapse graded relative to the hiatus. Associations include obesity, menopause, pregnancy and childbirth. Some women may be more likely to developing pelvic floor dysfunction because of an inherited deficiency in their collagen type. Some women may have congenitally weak connective tissue and fascia and are therefore at risk of stress urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
Surface electrodes (self-adhesive pads placed on your skin) can test your pelvic muscle control. This might be an option if you don’t want an internal exam. The electrodes are placed on the perineum (the area between the vagina and rectum in women, and between the testicles and rectum in men) or on the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of your spine). This test is not painful.
Issues with the pelvic floor can arise from a multitude of reasons. Infections, previous surgeries, childbirth, postural and lifting problems, and trips and falls can all bring on pelvic floor dysfunction. Pelvic floor pain can persist well after the cause of it has been removed. So it is entirely possible to feel the effects of an old infection, surgery or injury, days to years after they occur. Anyone who has had long standing abdomino-pelvic pain, or pain that they can’t seem to get rid of after seeking the help of medical doctors or other healthcare providers is a good candidate for a pelvic floor physical therapy evaluation and possible curative treatment.
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.
“I intentionally try and distract you during treatment, so that you don’t focus too much on the pain of the treatment. Furthermore, talking during our sessions continues to build rapport which is so important — it builds trust, makes you feel more comfortable, and also makes it more likely that you will return for your follow-up visits so that you will get better,” she says.
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.