“Do you do Glazer’s protocol?”
I have been asked this question several times over the past few years, by searching, hopeful women, looking for help after suffering from vulvar pain for far too long. I generally respond with, “I’m familiar with Glazer’s protocol, and would be happy to discuss it with you. Why don’t you come in for an evaluation and we can discuss treatment options specific to you?” This, in place of the, “I know it, but it’s more than likely not appropriate for you.”
Glazer’s protocol was a popular treatment approach, utilizing SEMG biofeedback to teach patients a method of contracting their pelvic floor muscles, to ultimately “fatigue” the muscles, and with the hope that doing so would relieve pain. Dr. Glazer was one of the first to publish research about treating the pelvic floor muscles in helping women with Vulvodynia, and all of us working with men and women with pelvic pain are grateful for his contributions.
However, as time goes on, we learn more and more. Which is awesome. And as we learn more, we hopefully change how we practice to provide the best treatment we can to our patients. Recently, my colleagues Sara Sauder and Amy Stein (2 fantastic clinicians and educators in pelvic pain) wrote an excellent commentary summarizing the evolution of biofeedback in helping women with vulvar pain. I was thrilled to see their commentary, and I thought many of you would benefit from it as well!
Sara and Amy very eloquently explain how the understanding of treatment to the pelvic floor muscles have changed over the years. Glazer’s protocol was based off the idea that frequent contractions of the pelvic floor muscles (both holding contractions and quick ones) would fatigue the muscles and thus lead to relaxation and pain relief. However, our current understanding of the pelvic floor musculature is quite different.
Shortened, Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles
Amy and Sara go on to explain that as we have learned about the pelvic floor and seen the presentations of women experiencing vulvar pain, we have found that most women actually present with shortened, tender pelvic floor muscles. Typically, when this is found on examination, the optimal treatment includes a combination of relaxation strategies as well as manual treatment vaginally to encourage lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. And what about fatiguing them by doing lots of kegels? Well, we have found that when shortened muscles do lots of contractions, they can actually get irritated and more shortened!
So, what’s the place for biofeedback?
First, it is important to realize that the term “biofeedback” is not exclusive to EMG. Really, biofeedback can be any cueing to encourage a patient to perform an exercise accurately. Sara and Amy give a few great examples: a finger in the vagina to encourage and cue the patient to relax and lengthen their muscles. A clinician teaching a patient the optimal way to harness the diaphragm with breathing. All biofeedback. And what about SEMG? It can offer some help for some patients to learn to relax and let go of their muscles. However, it can also be a little tricky because women with shortened muscles may appear “normal” on SEMG. Why? It’s complicated, but in summary, SEMG reads electrical activity… so, when a muscle is held at a shortened position for a long period of time, the body will adjust to this position as the new normal. Thus, this can “trick” a patient or clinician (especially if SEMG is done to replace an internal examination) into thinking the muscles are relaxed and functioning well, when they are actually shortened.
In summary, Glazer was a pioneer who really helped us in the process of better understanding Vulvodynia. But as all treatments and understandings do, we have evolved and changed to better understand what the most effective treatment techniques are for women experiencing Vulvodynia. Biofeedback should be a part of any treatment program… but SEMG biofeedback will have some utility for specific populations and limited utility for others.
I would encourage you to read Sara and Amy’s commentary yourself! You can find it here. If you are a physical therapist treating this population, you have the opportunity to learn from Sara in person! She teaches via Alcove Education, and has an excellent course: Vestibulodynia: An Orthopedic and Pelvic Floor Approach. My clinic is fortunate to host this course in just a few weeks! (Our course is sold out… but you can find upcoming courses here).
Sara and Amy are excellent clinicians, educators and advocates for men and women with pelvic pain. Sara runs a wonderful blog, Blog About Pelvic Pain, and Amy has created fantastic self-help tools, including her book Heal Pelvic Pain and her instructional DVD, Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain. I hope you enjoy these resources!
Have a wonderful week!