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.
Treatment is based on the cause of the dysfunction and severity of symptoms. Surgical treatment is rarely needed for pelvic floor dysfunction, except for large, symptomatic rectoceles or other pelvic prolapse. In the case of prolapse, surgery may help to restore the normal location of pelvic organs. This may be performed through the abdomen or through the bottom, depending on the specific problem.
Rectocele: A rectocele is a bulge of the front wall of the rectum into the vagina. Normally, the rectum goes straight down to the anus (picture). When a patient with a rectocele strains, the stool may get caught in an abnormal pocket of the rectum which bulges into the vagina. This prevents the patient from emptying the rectum completely. Generally, rectoceles do not produce symptoms. As they grow larger, rectoceles may cause difficulty going to the bathroom, or cause leakage of stool after having a bowel movement. Rectoceles are more common in women who have given birth. Rectoceles are usually caused by thinning of the tissue between the rectum and vagina and weakening of the pelvic floor muscles.
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.
Currently there is no surefire way to distinguish PFD from IC, and oftentimes patients have both conditions. Some healthcare providers examine pelvic floor muscles externally and internally to gauge their tightness (tightness indicates PFD). Other IC and PFD experts, like ICA Medical Advisory Board member, Robert Moldwin, MD, perform a lidocaine challenge. By instilling lidocaine into the bladder, Dr. Moldwin determines whether your pain is coming from your bladder, which would indicate IC.
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.
Myofascial release is a more gentle technique that can be useful in cases where a patient is already experiencing a great deal of pain. The therapist will hold gentle pressure at the barrier of the tissue (the point where resistance is felt) for a short period of time, usually less than 2 minutes until the therapist feels the tissue release on its own. The therapist does not force the barrier.
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.
Squats: Squats are a great holistic exercise because they engage many muscles at once. To do a body-weight squat, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then slowly bend your knees, dropping your hips and glutes down and back, keeping your back straight, as if you’re sitting down on a chair. (You can place your hands on your hips or stretch them out in front of you for balance.) Bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then return to an upright position. Repeat 10 times, up to three times per day.