Did you know that over 80% of women experience painful periods? And for some women, the amount of pressure in the uterus from those cramps can be just as severe as labor pains?
As someone who has been in labor recently, I can tell you that it is no cakewalk. The truth is that menstrual pain (Dysmenorrhea) is a significant problem for many women. In fact, this study found that in a group of 269 female college students, 84% experienced pain in the abdomen and back, 84% experienced mood swings and 48% experienced dizziness. Another interesting stat from this study: 48% felt like their academic performance was impacted. (and I would bet women out of school probably feel like their work and home life are impacted too!)
With menstrual pain impacting women as much as it does, it is surprising how few effective pain-reducing options we have. Most women turn to pain relievers like tylenol and ibuprofen, but the effectiveness of those in actually reducing the pain isn’t really that great. The great news is that there are many ways in which physical therapy can actually help with menstrual pain, and several studies have shown that many physiotherapy interventions are just as (if not more!) effective as pain medications.
So, what can physical therapy do to help with those painful cramps?
Movement is what we do in physical therapy, and certain exercises which help with movement of the spine and abdomen can be very helpful in improving pain levels. This study, in particular, found that certain yoga postures–Cat, Cobra and Fish– helped with reducing pain. Another study found that a physical therapy program including aerobic exercise, strengthening, stretching and relaxation led to a reduction in pain during menses.
So, modalities sometimes get a bad rap in the physical therapy world. And I get it, they are passive (meaning you, as the patient, don’t really have to do anything), and they are frequently over-used in cases when an active approach can be more helpful. But, certain modalities have been shown to be very helpful in reducing menstrual pain. In particular, applied hot packs were found to be equally beneficial to pain medication in this study! Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) applied to the low back/sacrum and/or abdomen has also been shown to have excellent results. The great thing about both of these options is that they are easy, reusable and effective options for a woman to use monthly without having to ingest medication.
Manual Therapy Interventions
The research regarding manual interventions for painful periods is honestly not fantastic, however, there have been some studies that have shown that treatments such as connective tissue mobilization,massage and acupressure have been helpful in reducing menstrual pain. When I used to work at a large clinic, many of my female co-workers would seek connective tissue mobilization and other soft tissue mobilizations from colleagues when having painful cramps. Clinically, I have seen that working with someone to reduce muscle sensitivity and tenderness (both in the pelvic floor muscles as well as muscles around the pelvis) does seem to reduce cramping during menses. I’m not positive the exact mechanism for this, but my working theory is that improving the “threat level” from muscles and tissues around the pelvis has effects that transfer to other situations (like cramping during periods), so the “threat level” during this situation is also reduced. I also think that hormones play a role in this as the tissues at the vulva/urethra are sensitive to estrogen, but also impacted by muscles and blood flow. So, hormonal changes that occur within a normal cycle (that lead to cramping, etc) could then be impacted by a decreased blood flow and decreased tissue mobility, thus causing the discomfort from cramping to be worsened. There you go, that’s my working theory.
So, in summary, if you’re having pretty bad cramping during your periods, know that there are some options to help! Often times, women are the WORST at just dealing with problems they have (and things like painful cramps are often blown off by friends, family members and other healthcare providers!) If this sounds like you, it may be worth seeing a pelvic PT for a consultation to help you build a robust and effective toolbox for managing your pain!
What other options have you found helpful in reducing cramping pain during periods? I always love to hear from you! Have a great week!
**Note: If your menstrual cramps are severe and truly limiting your life, make sure that your healthcare provider knows about it! There are some medical conditions which can contribute to severe cramping, and there are treatments available.
“Ok, TMI…but is everyone having sex again? We tried last night and OMG it was awful! So painful!!”
I clicked on the thread in one of my Facebook moms groups, and slowly looked through the comments, hoping to see words of encouragement, support, and most importantly, solid health advice.
“I know, me too. I just try to avoid it as much as I can.”
“What is sex? LOL”
Then, I began my comment, “Hi, I’m a pelvic PT and also the mom to a 6 month old. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. It’s so important to know that pain is not something you have to live with. There is help out there…”
Why is painful sex after childbirth so overlooked in healthcare? Why do so many women feel like they just have to live with this as a normal “consequence” of having a baby?
This past fall, I went through the craziest initiation process to join one of the most exclusive clubs out there: Motherhood. It has been an incredible and humbling journey for me, especially as a health care provider who specializes in helping women with problems they experience while pregnant and postpartum. Becoming a mother has allowed me to experience and witness first-hand many of the challenges women face after having babies.
Pain during sexual activity is extremely common after childbirth (Note: I said common…NOT normal). In fact, a large study of over 1000 women found that 85% experience pain during their first vaginal intercourse postnatally. At 3 months postpartum, 45% still were experiencing pain and at 18 months postpartum, 23% were still experiencing pain. Let that sink in. When a mother’s baby is 18 months old, 1 in 5 mamas had pain during sex! And the sad thing is that pain during sexual intercourse is SO treatable!! So, let’s get down to business…
Why could sex hurt after a baby?
Perineal Trauma from Childbirth
Spontaneous tearing and episiotomies are very common during vaginal deliveries. In fact, this study looking at 449 women who had at least 1 delivery found that only 3% of them did not have any tearing/episiotomy. Many women are able to heal from tears without problems. However, for some women, these injuries can become sources of pain, especially during sexual intercourse. This is especially true with more severe tears extending into the external anal sphinctor and rectum (grade 3-4 tears). This study found that women who had tears extending into the anal sphinctor were 3-4 times more likely to have pain during intercourse at 1 year postpartum compared to their counterparts. Perineal scars can be very sensitive and move poorly in some women leading to persistent discomfort which can last for years after the baby is born when it is not treated (but guess what? It CAN be treated!)
Anyone who has had a baby can attest to the crazy hormonal fluctuations that happen during pregnancy and postpartum. One of my very best friends warned me about this telling me that she cried every day for the first week after the baby was born. Guess what? So did I. These crazy hormones can also impact what is happening down below, especially in breastfeeding mamas. Basically, the hormonal changes lead to decreased estrogen in the vulvar tissues often causing thinning and dryness. This is why breastfeeding is associated with painful sexual intercourse early on postpartum. Now, if you are reading this and you are a nursing mama like myself, should you stop to fix your sexual discomfort? Not necessarily. This study found that although nursing was associated with dyspareunia at 6 weeks postpartum, the association was eliminated by 6 months. Meaning, stopping nursing won’t necessarily fix the problem (so don’t let this be your deciding factor in the decision to breastfeed your babe).
Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles
The pelvic floor muscles themselves can become big sources of sexual discomfort if they are tender, shortened or irritated after childbirth. Perineal trauma and hormonal changes can lead to tenderness in the pelvic floor muscles, but the muscles can also stand on their own. Many people believe that C-sections protect the pelvic floor muscles from having problems, however, we have to remember that the pelvic floor are one member of a team of muscles (including the deep abdominal muscles, low back muscles and respiratory diaphragm) that work together to provide support and stability to the pelvis. That could be partially why C-section mamas are actually 2-3 times more likely to experience more intense pain during sexual intercourse at 6 months postpartum.
Because Babies are Hard
I had to add this one in. It’s important to remember than normal sexual function should include sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm. New mamas are exhausted, feeding sweet little babies around the clock, settling into a new routine whether they are returning to jobs or caring for their babies at home, sleep-deprived from often waking up multiple times a night, changing diapers, and worrying constantly about helping these little babies survive and thrive. And honestly, it can be really hard for many moms to have the same level of sexual desire and arousal that they had prior to having their babies (at least until life settles down– or I’m told–when the babies go to college LOL). When a woman experiences sexual desire and arousal, there is natural lubrication and lengthening of the vaginal canal, and this step is so important in having enjoyable sexual activity. Sometimes, when this step is skipped, women are more likely to experience discomfort with vaginal penetration.
So, what can be done to help?
Realize it is not normal. Don’t just deal with it. And check-in with your Obstetric provider.
The first step is seeing your OB or midwife to make sure everything is ok medically. She should evaluate you to make sure everything is healing the way that it should be healing and that nothing else is going on that needs to be managed medically. I have had patients who have had difficulties healing after tears and needed some medical help to encourage their tissues to heal the way they needed to. I have also worked with women who had underlying infections contributing to their pain, that of course, needed to be treated to move forward. This is not a step you should skip, so don’t be bashful! Tell your doctor what is going on.
Don’t be afraid to use a little help.
I get it. You never had to use lubricant before, and it’s annoying to have to use it now. But guess what? It can make a HUGE difference in reducing discomfort from thin or dehydrated vulvar tissues after babies! So, if you don’t already have a good one, go pick out a nice water-based lubricant to use. Some of my favorites for my patients are Slippery Stuff and Sliquid. I am also a big fan of coconut oil (but make sure to know that using it with condoms can cause condom breakdown).
If you are having difficulty with sexual arousal and desire since having your baby, and you feel comfortable with it (I know, some women don’t!), try using a small vibrator to help with improving sexual arousal and promoting orgasm. Many sex therapists I work with encourage couples to consider using this on days when they need a little assistance attaining the arousal they need.
Educate your sexual partner and empower them to help you
It can be so helpful to include partners in this process. Show them this blog post, so they can understand what could be going on, and empower them to help you! For some women having difficulties with arousal, having their partner do something like clean up after dinner and put the baby to bed so they can have time for a quiet relaxing shower can be just the ticket to helping them become more sexually aroused to decrease sexual discomfort. If you are having problems with painful perineal scars or pelvic floor muscles, consider including your partner in your medical or physical therapy visits so they can understand what you are experiencing. Many pelvic PTs (like myself) will often educate partners in methods to help with decreasing pain , and even in treating the pelvic floor muscles/scars (if both people feel comfortable and on-board with this!).
Go see a pelvic PT!
If you have tender pelvic floor muscles or painful scars, all the lubricant and sexual arousal in the world is not going to fix the problem. Working with a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be hugely beneficial in identifying where and what the problem is, and helping you move forward from pain!
A skilled physical therapist will spend time talking with you the first visit to understand your history (including specifics of your delivery), and will perform a comprehensive examination, head to toe, to see how your body moves, where you might not be moving as well as you could be, and how you transfer force through your body. They will also perform an examination of the abdominal wall (especially important for C-section mamas), and an internal vaginal examination of the pelvic floor muscles. Based on this examination, they will be able to work with you to develop a plan to help you optimize the function of your body and get back to a happy and healthy sex life!
This is first in likely a few series of posts I will be doing on postpartum specific problems. I hope you all enjoy! Please please please reach out if you have any questions at all!
This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach Pelvic Floor Level 1: An Introduction to Female Pelvic Floor Function, Dysfunction and Treatment to a group of 40 clinicians in Houston. I love teaching beginner pelvic health classes. First, I am extremely passionate about pelvic health (in case you didn’t notice 😉), so spending a weekend talking about my passion with people who want to learn about it is incredible. Second, I love that I get to play a crucial role in helping a practitioner advance his or her practice to include an entire area of the body that they likely have never examined before. Yep, these participants spend 3 days learning how to perform internal vaginal pelvic floor examinations. And that, my friends, tends to be a game changer.
Inevitably, over the weekend, many clinicians will have the mixture of regret and excitement in discovering that the new techniques they are learning could have helped a prior patient. And hopefully this comes with the thrill of realizing all of the current clients who are likely going to benefit when they get back to their clinics. But what about that past patient? The one they couldn’t help? The one who didn’t get better?
I’ve been there. When I was getting my doctorate at Duke, I had a professor who once told us,
“If you reach a point in your practice that you are so tied to the techniques you use that you refuse to question them or change your approach, you should retire.”
This powerful statement has stuck with me, and encouraged me to constantly question what I do, mold my approach, and strive to improve to better serve my patients. Many years ago, I worked with a wonderful woman who was seeing me to address persistent vulvar pain (Vulvodynia). We worked together for quite a while, and we saw some improvements. But she continued to have pain. I ended up sending her back to her physician, unsure of what else I could do to help her. Fast forward 2 years later, I was chatting with her gynecologist and that patient came to my mind. I asked her gynecologist if the patient was still struggling with pain, and unfortunately, she still was. That’s when it hit me: my practice had changed in those 2 years. I was a better, more experienced clinician. I had been to many other continuing education courses, and learned so much more through the patients and clinicians I had worked with.
I had spent hours and hours diving deep into the pain neuroscience world. I had learned how much educating my patients about pain and integrating pain science within the interventions I provided could influence my patients positively and be a catalyst in their healing journeys.
I had connected with some fantastic psychological professionals in the area, including a counselor who was extremely talented at helping men and women dealing with chronic pain.
So, I asked the physician if she thought the patient would be open to coming back. We called the patient, and she was. And guess what? She was thrilled that I had thought of her after those years, and wanted to help her in her recovery. And guess what happened? She got better! My approach was different. I referred her to the counselor I mentioned, and he ended up being a huge player in her healing journey. She loved dry needling and connective tissue mobilization, and felt significant pain relief from these treatments. I also took a more active approach with her, got her moving in ways that helped her body not guard from pain, and together, we helped her move forward.
So, why am I telling you this?
If you are a clinician, I hope you go to courses, read journals, and have conversations with colleagues that challenge your practice, encourage you to change, grow and get better! And if that reminds you of patients you could have helped, check in on them! Call them up, and ask them to take a chance on you! In my experience, men and women with chronic pain will be glad that you did! They’ll be glad you want to advocate for them, help them, and that you are passionate enough to still want to make a difference for them, months or years later.
If you are a patient who is still not better after failed treatments, try giving a clinician a second try. Send them an email and ask if they have learned anything new that may help you or want to review your case another time. You may be surprised at the results!
I want to hear from you! Have you ever seen a clinician for a second round with different outcomes? If you are a provider, how has your practice changed in the past few years? Have you helped a patient you couldn’t help before?
I want to meet you! If you are a healthcare provider, I would love to have you at a course! Check out my future offerings here! Unable to make a live course? On-demand webinars are a great option too!
At least a few times a week, I get the question, “So, what in the world made you want to do this??” And it’s fascinating on a lot of levels. First, there’s the assumption that “this” meaning, my profession, is a strange and weird specialty to be in. (I could write a whole post on that topic, but I won’t…at least not right now.) I doubt my colleagues practicing in Orthopedics or Neurology get that question with that look as frequently as I do. Generally, there’s the assumption that I must have had a pelvic problem that was treated by a pelvic PT, that inspired me to move into this specialty. Also, not true. Although it could be (and who knows what will happen in the future, with this little sweet one on the way in October!!), and that would be inspiring, I’m sure, but it’s not my story.
The truth is, I sort of fell into the pelvic health world. I remember clearly when I first learned that there were physical therapists who did vaginal and rectal examinations. I was a first year doctoral student at Duke, and we were in the midst of our very first clinical experiences– observing for one afternoon each week at various physical therapy clinics and hospitals around the area. A few of my fellow students were assigned to “Women’s Health” (I was not). We all sat around as they shared in horror their experience of watching a physical therapist do an internal examination, and I stated, pretty clearly, “Wow, that is so gross. Why would anyone ever want to do that?!”
Yet, here I am, dedicating my career completely to this population. At the time of first-year Jessica in PT school, I was positive I wanted to specialize in Vestibular Dysfunction and Neurology. I had interned at a clinic for 2 years in undergrad that specialized in this population, and I loved it. The problem was, Duke required that one of our long internships (5 months long to be exact) be in the Orthopedic realm. So, not knowing what exactly I wanted to learn about during that “unnecessary” second internship, I made my list of “split” affiliations, to make me a well-rounded clinician. And, my list looked like this:
And guess which one I got? Yep, you got it. Orthopedics/Women’s Health. My third choice. I was assigned to a 5 month rotation in Shreveport, Louisiana, interning both at a Sports Medicine Clinic and a Women’s Health Clinic, with the most amazing and inspiring Darla Cathcart, PT, DPT, WCS (now a good friend, and always a great mentor). And you could say, the rest is history.
I fell in love with the pelvic health population within the first few weeks. I remember one of the first patients I treated was a young woman suffering from severe pain with sexual intercourse. She had been experiencing this pain for more than 10 years, and had several relationships end by her inability to participate in sex. I remember the day she came in and tearfully told us that she had been able to have sex with no pain for the first time in her life. I get goosebumps even typing it. It was then, in that moment, that I knew, I just had to treat this population.
So, from that moment forward, I was in. I spent all of my free time researching pelvic health problems. I attended 2 continuing education courses as a student. And that amazing neuro rotation I was looking forward to? I spent my days off observing with their pelvic floor specialists. I even did my inservice on management of constipation in adults after experiencing strokes. You see? I was 100% in. And I have been ever since.
So, why in the world would I want to be a pelvic health PT?
Because close to 50% of women and 25% of men experience urinary incontinence in their lifetimes, and close to 90% have a difficult time telling their healthcare providers about it, and seeking treatment.
Because 10-15% of people experience chronic pelvic pain and have to see an average of 6 different healthcare providers before getting the help they so desperately need.
Because almost 1 in 5 women experience pain with sexual intercourse
These people need us. They need me. And honestly, I need them. I learn about perseverance as I help my patient who has had chronic pain for 10+ years work hard and fight to move forward toward a pain-free life. I learn about courage, as I see the strength in the young lady I am helping overcome pain with sexual intercourse as she decides to try again for the first time. I learn about bravery as I listen to my patient who has been struggling with leaking urine tell me about spending the day shopping without wearing a pad.
The truth is… my patients change me every day as much if not more than I hope I can help to change them. And that, my friends, is why I am thankful every day to be in this profession. That, is why I am a pelvic health physical therapist.
Technology in our current time is incredible. With our smartphones so quickly at our finger tips, we have apps for pretty much everything. Need to find a good restaurant near by? There’s an app for that. Want to quickly edit your photos into beautiful photo masterpieces? Just download the app. Last year over Christmas, I even found an app that turned anyone’s face into Santa Claus. (The results were amazing if you’re wondering).
And pelvic health is no different. There are so many apps available for people with pelvic problems or for general men’s and women’s health needs. I absolutely love apps for my patients that help them with the problems they’re experiencing or enhance their home programs. Here are some of the great ones out there! (Note: Special thanks to my colleagues on the Women’s Health Physiotherapy Facebook Group who added their suggestions to this list. I plan to keep this updated regularly so it can be a great resource for colleagues and our wonderful patients!) Enjoy!
iDry: Free version includes a tracker for pad usage and bladder leakage. Premium version includes options for interventions (including pelvic floor exercises!), a more detailed chart tracker, reminders, and options to send to your health care providers!
UroBladderDiary: This app costs $1.99 but allows tracking of urinary frequency and volumes, leakage, and fluid intake. Also allows tracking of urgency level. Allows conversion to a PDF to e-mail to health care provider.
Bathroom Map: For those struggling with strong urinary or bowel urgency and/or incontinence, this app may become your best friend! It uses your location to quickly identify all of the restrooms nearby. It also grades each bathroom as green, yellow or red to indicate the availability of the restroom, comfort and cleanliness of the facility.
Poo Keeper: This app is a quick tracker for someone struggling with bowel problems. Allows you to snap a quick photo of your stool and track your stool consistency.
BM Classic: For those with bowel problems, this app not only allows you to track your bowel frequency and stool consistency (using the awesome Bristol Stool Scale), but also allows you to track stress level, water intake, and dietary habits. Could be a great resource for someone struggling with bowel problems.
Pelvic Floor Exercises:
Squeezy: This app was designed by pelvic physiotherapists in the UK and is endorsed by the NHS. It allows for a personalized exercise program, has reminders, visuals and keeps a record.
Kegel Trainer: This app includes information on how to use pelvic floor muscles, and has various levels of exercise based on different contraction/relaxation intervals. Free version only includes first level, paid goes up to 15 levels. Includes reminders and an exercise tracker.
Pelvic Floor First: This is an awesome organization out of Australia, and I have used their website and handouts frequently for my clients for the past several years. Their app definitely does not disappoint! It offers a nice progressive exercise routine for someone struggling with pelvic floor weakness (like we commonly see with urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and postpartum difficulties). The programs go from Starting Out (30 min), Moving On (40 min) to Stepping Up (50 min). Just be sure to chat with your pelvic PT before you jump in the program!
If you prefer a device for strengthening (and your pelvic PT thinks that would be helpful to you!), the following are apps that sync to insertable devices: Pericoach, Elvie, KGoal
BWOM: This app is great because it starts with a short quiz to help identify where someone may have a pelvic floor problem. It then has exercise programs (available for a small $$) based on that problem, including relaxation exercises! Designed by pelvic physios.
GoldMuscle: This app is focused on improving sexual performance rather than on those who may have pelvic health problems, so definitely has a different look to it. It includes various programs to focus on both endurance and quick contractions of pelvic floor, allows you to track progress, and get reminders for your exercises.
Pelvic Pain/Relaxation Apps:
RelaxLite with Andrew Johnson: This is one of my personal faves. Basically, it’s a 10-15 min guided progressive relaxation. He has a paid version too with lots of additional upgrades, but the free meditation is great!
Headspace: Free version includes a free 10 minute meditation to teach basics of meditation. Upgrade provides access to tons of different meditation options. Great way to start learning meditation.
Calm: Another great meditation app. Free version includes the “7 days of Calm” introductory program to learn the basics of mindful meditation, and also incluees access to soothing sounds to help relieve stress. Upgrade allows access to all of the different meditation programs (for sleep, calm, etc)
Insight Timer: Meditation community app, includes a timer to track meditation with different sound options, and includes over 1300 guided meditations. Also includes discussion groups and meet-up groups.
Binaural- Pure Binaural Beats: This app allows you to listen (use headphones) to various sounds to promote brain wave activity correlated with relaxation, meditation, problem solving and activity. And all of it’s free!
iPeriod: Paid versions only. Use to track periods, ovulation and fertility; Graphs of data available and includes availability to export data to take to physician visits. Lots of personalization options too!
Clue: Period tracker that predicts dates for your next period, and also allows you to track symptoms as they relate to your cycle (including pain, which is awesome!)
My Days: This app tracks and predicts periods, ovulation and fertility. Also allows options to track basal metabolic temperature, cervical mucus and cervix for those trying to become pregnant.
Pregnancy Pelvic Floor Plan: This app by the Continence Foundation of Australia has both a tracker to see weekly milestones during pregnancy, but also has great information on pelvic floor health. Includes option to receive regular reminders to perform pelvic floor exercises.
Gentle Birth: This app promotes a positive pregnancy and birth experience. Includes mindfulness, breathing techniques, affirmations and hypnosis, combined with evidence based research. Customized programs based on the woman’s needs. Free for a sample program, then requires paid subscription.
Mind the Bump: Meditation app geared toward pregnancy/postnatal populations. Includes different meditations for different periods of time (first trimester-postpartum)
Pregnancy Exercise- Weekly Workout: This app by Oh Baby! Fitness (based out of Atlanta, and generally very evidence-based!) includes a new exercise for every week of pregnancy based on pilates, yoga and strength training. Through 10 weeks is free, then $5 to unlock the rest of the weeks.
Rost Moves: This app provides recommendations for body mechanics/movement options when performing different regular home activities. Especially a great app for new moms or pregnant women with pelvic girdle/low back pain.
Hope you found this helpful! Did I miss any of your favorite apps?? Let me know in the comments below! I plan to update this page regularly for new apps we discover! Have a great week! ~ Jessica
If you didn’t know, December 1st was a day that all PTs came together to share with the public all of the benefits of seeking PT! My colleague, Stephanie Prendergast, founder of the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in California, wrote an amazing blog post on why someone should get pelvic PT first. I thought it was great (as you know…I post lots of Stephanie’s stuff), and Stephanie gave me permission to re-blog it here. So, I really hope you enjoy it. If you aren’t familiar with Stephanie’s blog, please check it out here. You won’t regret it.
On another note, I will be teaching a live webinar Thursday 12/10 on Pelvic Floor Dysfunction in the Adult Athlete. I really hope to see some blog followers there! Register for it here.
Now… enjoy this great post by Stephanie. ~ Jessica
Why get PT 1st? Here are the Facts. By Stephanie Prendergast
Vaginal pain. Burning with urination. Post-ejaculatory pain. Constipation. Genital pain following bowel movements. Pelvic pain that prevents sitting, exercising, wearing pants and having pleasurable intercourse.
When a person develops these symptoms, physical therapy is not the first avenue of treatment they turn to for help. In fact, physical therapists are not even considered at all. This week, we’ll discuss why this old way of thinking needs to CHANGE. Additionally, we’ll explain how the “Get PT 1st” campaign is leading the way in this movement.
We’ve heard it before. You didn’t know we existed, right? Throughout the years, patients continue to inform me the reason they never sought a physical therapist for treatment first, was because they were unaware pelvic physical therapists existed, and are actually qualified to help them.
Many individuals do not realize that physical therapists hold advanced degrees in musculoskeletal and neurologic health, and are treating a wide range of disorders beyond the commonly thought of sports or surgical rehabilitation.
On December 1st, physical therapists came together on social media to raise awareness about our profession and how we serve the community. The campaign is titled “GetPT1st”. The team at PHRC supports this campaign and this week we will tell you that you can and should get PT first if you are suffering from a pelvic floor disorder.
Did you know that a majority of people with pelvic pain have “tight” pelvic floor muscles that are associated with their symptoms?
Physical therapy is first-line treatment that can help women eliminate vulvar pain
Chronic vulvar pain affects approximately 8% of the female population under 40 years old in the USA, with prevalence increasing to 18% across the lifespan. (Ruby H. N. Nguyen, Rachael M. Turner, Jared Sieling, David A. Williams, James S. Hodges, Bernard L. Harlow, Feasibility of Collecting Vulvar Pain Variability and its Correlates Using Prospective Collection with Smartphones 2014)
Physical therapy is first-line treatment that can help men and women with Interstitial Cystitis
Over 1 million people are affected by IC in the United States alone [Hanno, 2002;Jones and Nyberg, 1997], in fact; an office survey indicated that 575 in every 100,000 women have IC [Rosenberg and Hazzard, 2005]. Another study on self-reported adult IC cases in an urban community estimated its prevalence to be approximately 4% [Ibrahim et al. 2007]. Children and adolescents can also have IC [Shear and Mayer, 2006]; patients with IC have had 10 times higher prevalence of bladder problems as children than the general population [Hanno, 2007].
Physical Therapy is first-line treatment that can help men suffering from Chronic Nonbacterial Prostatitis/Male Pelvic Pain
Chronic prostatitis (CP) or chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CPPS) affects 2%-14% of the male population, and chronic prostatitis is the most common urologic diagnosis in men aged <50 years.
The definition of CP/CPPS states urinary symptoms are present in the absence of a prostate infection. (Pontari et al. New developments in the diagnosis and treatment of CP/CPPS. Current Opinion, November 2013).
71% of women in a survey of 205 educated postpartum women were unaware of the impact of pregnancy on the pelvic floor muscles.
21% of nulliparous women in a 269 women study presented with Levator Ani avulsion following a vaginal delivery (Deft. relationship between postpartum levator ani muscle avulsion and signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction. BJOG 2014 Feb 121: 1164 -1172).
64.3% of women reported sexual dysfunction in the first year following childbirth. (Khajehi M. Prevalence and risk factors of sexual dysfunction in postpartum Australian women. J Sex Med 2015 June; 12(6):1415-26.
24% of postpartum women still experienced pain with intercourse at 18 months postpartum (McDonald et al. Dyspareunia and childbirth: a prospective cohort study. BJOG 2015)
85% of women stated that given verbal instruction alone did not help them to properly perform a Kegel. *Dunbar A. understanding vaginal childbirth: what do women understand about the consequences of vaginal childbirth.J Wo Health PT 2011 May/August 35 (2) 51 – 56)
Did you know that pelvic floor physical therapy is mandatory for postpartum women in many other countries such as France, Australia, and England? This is because pelvic floor physical therapy can help prepartum women prepare for birth and postpartum moms restore their musculoskeletal health, eliminate incontinence, prevent pelvic organ prolapse, and return to pain-free sex.
Did you know that weak or ‘low tone’ pelvic floor muscles are associated with urinary and fecal incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and pelvic organ prolapse?
Physical Therapy can help with Stress Urinary Incontinence
Did you know that weak or ‘low tone’ pelvic floor muscles are associated with urinary and fecal incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and pelvic organ prolapse? 80% of women by the age of 50 experience Stress Urinary Incontinence. Pelvic floor muscle training was associated with a cure of stress urinary incontinence. (Dumoulin C et al. Neurourol Urodyn. Nov 2014)
30 – 85 % of men develop stress urinary incontinence following a radical prostatectomy. Early pelvic floor muscle training hastened the recovery of continence and reduced the severity at 1, 3 and 6 months postoperatively. (Ribeiro LH et al. J Urol. Sept 2014; 184 (3):1034 -9).
Physical Therapy can help with Erectile Dysfunction
Several studies have looked at the prevalence of ED. At age 40, approximately 40% of men are affected. The rate increases to nearly 70% in men aged 70 years. The prevalence of complete ED increases from 5% to 15% as age increases from 40 to 70 years.1
Physical Therapy can help with Pelvic Organ Prolapse
In the 16,616 women with a uterus, the rate of uterine prolapse was 14.2%; the rate of cystocele was 34.3%; and the rate of rectocele was 18.6%. For the 10,727 women who had undergone a hysterectomy, the prevalence of cystocele was 32.9% and of rectocele was 18.3%. (Susan L. Hendrix, DO,Pelvic organ prolapse in the Women’s Health Initiative: Gravity and gravidity. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2002;186:1160-6.)
Pelvic floor physical therapy can help optimize musculoskeletal health, reducing the symptoms of prolapse, help prepare the body for surgery if necessary, and speed post-operative recovery.
Stephanie grew up in South Jersey, and currently sees patients at Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in their Los Angeles office. She received her bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology from Rutgers University, and her master’s in physical therapy at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. For balance, Steph turns to yoga, music, and her calm and loving King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Abbie. For adventure, she gets her fix from scuba diving and global travel.
Confession: I treat men. Lots of them. Seriously, I think my schedule is often about 30% men. This shouldn’t have to be a confession. You shouldn’t be surprised, or shocked by this, but you possibly are. I mean, my female patients are often surprised when they see a male walking out prior to their appointments. I’ve seen that same surprised look on a friend’s (or family member’s, or random person at the bar who happened to ask me what I do for a living’s) face. For some reason, pelvic floor problems are typically seen as a “woman’s problem,” and this is so so unfortunate. It’s unfortunate, because it means that many men feel embarrassed or awkward seeking help for a problem seen to be “unmanly.” It’s unfortunate, because SO many of the men I treat end up seeing close to 5-6 physicians, plus 2-3 physical therapists/chiropractors/acupuncturists, etc. before they actually end up in a place that offers them hope. And it’s unfortunate, because it means that many many men end up suffering with pain for way longer than they should. And this just has to stop. < Rant ended>
So, today, we’re going to talk about Pelvic Pain in Men. First, you should know that pelvic pain in men is not that uncommon. In fact, this study estimates that close to 1 in 10 men experience chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome. Often times, pelvic pain is first diagnosed as prostatitis, and I think this happens because of where the pain is located. Prostatitis means inflammation in the prostate… but not all men with the diagnosis actually have inflammation present in the prostate. In all seriousness, I encourage men who are having pelvic pain and receive this diagnosis to ask for a culture. Make sure your prostate is really the one who should be blamed. In some cases, it is (like with bacterial infections). But, often times, these cultures come back negative. So ultimately if the pelvic pain doesn’t go away after a few months, men will often get the diagnosis of chronic nonbacterial prostatitis (which is now categorized as Type 3 chronic prostatitis) or chronic pelvic pain syndrome.
Now, you may be thinking, “Jessica, where are you going with all of this?” Well, these men are the ones I generally end up treating. They’ve had pelvic pain for a long time. Haven’t really responded that well to many medications. And still have pretty significant pain levels. <<Side bar: Today, we’re going to talk about the musculoskeletal aspects involved in pelvic pain in men; however, we never want to downplay the role that other systems and structures can play in pain. So, make sure you are working with a multidisciplinary team and are thoroughly evaluated medically.>>
The symptoms of myofascial pelvic pain in men can include the following:
Pain (which can be sharp, dull, achey, burning, pulling, etc) localized to the lower abdomen, hips, buttock, anus, perineal body, penis, scrotum and/or tailbone.
Changes in urination, including urinary urgency/frequency, pain with urination, difficulty starting a urine stream, intermittent or slow urine stream, dribbling after urination and/or urinary leakage.
Changes in bowel function including constipation, difficulty emptying bowel movements, pain during and/or after bowel movements.
Changes in sexual function including premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction and/or pain related to sexual function.
So, what can a physical therapist do to help a man with pelvic pain?
Well, a lot. First, you should know that pelvic pain is complicated (I would argue that all pain really is) and when someone has been in pain for a long time, their pain experience becomes multifactorial. We know now that when a person has had pain for a long time, his or her brain changes the way it processes the signals from the area, and many people develop what we call “central sensitization.” This study found that this happens commonly in men with chronic pelvic pain, which should come as no shock to those of you who read my blog regularly. How exactly is the brain involved in all this? I’m not going to repeat myself here…but I will tell you, to stop here if you don’t know it already, and read this, this and this.
Ok, back to what we can do to help these men experiencing pelvic pain. Let’s break it down:
Identification of the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular structures involved: A skilled pelvic PT will perform a comprehensive examination to observe movement patterns and identify structures that could be a component of the pelvic pain experience (including neural, muscular and connective tissue)For many men with pelvic pain, the pelvic floor muscles can be some of those components. These muscles are actually fairly similar anatomically to the pelvic floor muscles in women (although different, of course!). These muscles can be evaluated externally via palpation or internally via the anal canal. Typically, assessing both ways is the best option as it gives us a comprehensive picture of what is happening from a muscular standpoint.
Nervous System (Brain) Training: I could really just stop here…because this is our primary and most important goal in physical therapy. This should (and will eventually) be a series of posts in itself. Basically, we know that the brain protects a person against “threatening” areas, movements, etc. when a person is experiencing persistent pain. We want to slowly teach the brain that the areas it is protecting are no longer a threat. We want to widen the “safety net” of the brain to allow for more variability in movement, and we can do that through manual therapy, downtraining the nervous system(restoring breathing patterns, guided relaxations, stress management, etc), restorative exercise/movement, and lots of behavioral education.
Manual Therapy Techniques: Musculoskeletal structures are often significant components of chronic pelvic pain in men, like I mentioned above. This includes the pelvic floor muscles (both the external, superficial layer of muscles around the penis and perineum as well as the deeper layers of muscle) as well as the muscles around the pelvis (gluteal muscles, adductors, hip flexors, low back muscles, etc.). Many men will also have restrictions in connective tissue around the pelvis, as well as possibly decreased nerve mobility in some of the nerves around the pelvis. Manual therapy techniques performed both externally and internally help to restore tissue mobility, improve blood flow, and improve the movement of the spine and joints around the pelvis.
Improving Bowel, Bladder and Sexual Habits: As mentioned above, pelvic pain is often accompanied by bladder, bowel or sexual symptoms. Part of helping a client move toward better function means making sure that habits are supporting the best possible outcome. So, we look at everything from dietary habits, toilet positioning, sexual positioning/habits, as well as even sleeping habits to make sure we are addressing as many components of the “pain picture” that we can.
Restoring Movement Patterns: As we have learned previously, movement patterns are often changed/adapted when a person is experiencing pain. Although this can be a helpful adaptation short-term, these adaptations can often contribute to problems as time goes on. So, our goal is to observe these patterns of movement and identify asymmetries or dominant patterns in order to add some variety to movement and improve the fluidity of movement patterns. Basically, we want to restore the large variety of movement that you used to have before you were dealing with pelvic pain.
Much, much more… I know, this is a catch-all subheading. But honestly, there is SO much more that we can do to help someone with pelvic pain depending on the specific case and it would be impossible to get it all in within one blog!
So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that if you’re a man who is having pelvic pain, it’s time to do something about it! I really do recommend seeking out a pelvic PT who is skilled in treating persistent pelvic pain, and comfortable in treating men (Come see me if you live in the metro Atlanta area!). And, if you’re a pelvic PT and don’t feel comfortable treating men? Then, I want you to read what I’m about to write with the kindest, gentlest undertones… It’s time to get comfortable. I’m serious, and I’m talking to you blog reader who only accepts female clients. I understand that some women feel awkward about this…but men need us! They’re hurting, and they need help, so I really think it’s time to get comfortable. Go to a course, seek out mentoring, or whatever you need to get comfortable…but I think we all need to take responsibility to start providing these men with the care they need!
Wanna read more? Check out these great posts by my colleagues on male pelvic floor problems:
I can’t help it. Every time I think scar, I think… Scar (and yes, I used to have a much better picture of Scar from The Lion King for you…but I had to remove it in my attempt to make sure I’m not violating anyone’s copyright laws!) I was going to try to think of some funny way to explain why scars and Scar are the same… but I can’t… I relate it to the 50,000 times I have watched The Lion King... so I’ll leave it at that.
Scars can be a big pain though– literally! I have treated women who even after several years cannot tolerate pressure on a c-section scar. Men who have nice huge abdominal scars that ultimately contribute to problems with constipation. And moms who have discomfort near their perineal tears every time they have sexual intercourse. The truth is that scar tissue is often something skilled physical therapists will evaluate and treat as part of a comprehensive program in men and women with pelvic floor dysfunction(and really, with any type of problem!). And the best part– treating scar tissue can make HUGE differences!
So, what is a scar?
When there is an initial injury (and yes, a surgical incision is an “injury”), the body goes through three phases of healing: Inflamation, Proliferation and Remodeling. Through this process, the body creates scarring to close up the initial injury. Scars are composed of a fibrous protein (collagen) which is the same type of tissue that is in the tissue the body is repairing (i.e. skin, etc). The difference, however, is that scars are not quite organized the same way as the tissues they replace, and they don’t really do the job quite as well. (i.e. scars are much more permeable to UV rays than skin is). Scars can form in all tissues of the body– even the heart forms scar tissue after someone has a heart attack (myocardial infarction).
How do scars lead to problems?
After the inflammation and proliferation stage of healing, comes the remodeling. This stage can take months to years! During this time, the body is slowly adapting and changing the scar to the stresses on the tissue. Have you ever noticed that some scars initially are pink and raised and then over time become light/white and flat? That’s remodeling. Ultimately, there are a few major reasons why a person might develop pain from a scar:
Adhesions: Scars are not super selective when it comes to tissues they adhere to. So, sometimes, scars will adhere to lots of tissues around them and this pull can lead to discomfort.
Sensitivity: Scars can become very sensitive for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, small nerves can be pulled on by the scar which can lead to irritation. Other times, people themselves will have a significant amount of fear related to the scar. This fear, can often make people avoid touching the scar, and that, along with what we know about how our brain processes fear and pain (See this post, this one, and this one), can lead to a brain that is veeerrrryyy sensitive to the scar. Along with this, muscles near scars can become tender and sensitive. This can occur due to the scar pulling on the muscle or due to the sensitive nerves in the area.
Weakness/Poor Muscle firing: So, we know that when our tissues are cut, the muscles around the tissues are inhibited (have you ever seen someone after a knee replacement? It can be quite a bit of work to get those muscles to fire immediately after surgery). That’s why it’s important to get the right muscles firing and moving once a person is safely healed. Moving the right muscles improves blood flow too which promotes healing.
There are several ways physical therapists can help decrease pain from scars. Can we actually break-up/melt/eliminate scar tissue? I don’t really think so– honestly, scars are made from strong material and truly breaking up the scar is typically something that has to be done surgically– but most of the time, that is not necessary. We can decrease pain from scars by:
Improving the mobility of the scar: Gentle techniques to massage the scar and the tissues around the scar can facilitate blood flow to the area and decrease some of the pulling on the tissues around it. There is a thought as well that scar tissue massage can disrupt the fibrotic tissue and improve pliability of the scar (basically, help the scar organize itself a little better, and ultimately move better), and help to promote decreased adhesions of the scar to the tissues around it. Unfortunately, there really is not a lot of great research out there about scar tissue massage. However, this review published in 2012 found that 90% of people with post-surgical scars who were treated by scar massage saw an improvement in either the appearance of the scar or their overall function–which is very promising!
Desensitizing the scar and the nervous system: This is where I think we can make huge changes–both by improving someone’s worries/fears about the scar (calming the nervous system) and by slowly desensitizing the scar and the skin around the scar to touch. This is a slow process, but over time, many people who initially can barely tolerate pressure on the scar can be able to easily touch and move the scar without discomfort.
Promoting movement: So, we talked about how muscles can become inhibited or tender after a surgery? Part of improving scar tissue related pain is helping the muscles around the scar move well and learn to fire again. This can include some soft tissue treatment to the muscles to reduce the tenderness of the muscles, but ultimately leads to learning to use the muscles again in a variety of movement patterns. Movement is amazing for the body and can not only improve blood flow, but decrease pain too!
Wanna learn more?
Several of my colleagues have written wonderful information about scar tissue! Check out this great, article and free handout by Kathe Wallace, PT on abdominal scar massage! My colleagues at the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center have also written a few blogs on scars, which you can find here and here.
I love the changes I’ve seen in our culture over the past 10 or so years. Healthy foods? Regular exercise? Joining gyms, boxes, studios, programs? This has become the norm for many people—and, that is so awesome! I love to see people being more active, taking responsibility for their health, and really striving to care for their bodies throughout their lifespans.
However, with this change and shift toward more activity, I have started seeing some pelvic problems become more common. And I don’t blame the exercise—I really don’t! I will stand firm in my belief that there is no such thing as a bad exercise—but all exercises require proper form and performance. Sometimes when we consistently perform exercises that we may not be able to do correctly, problems can creep in. I don’t see this to scare anyone off from exercises– please don’t think I mean that! But I think it is important to remember that Pain is never normal. Bladder leakage? Bowel problems? Sexual pain? Also never normal.
So, the next two posts are going to address two of the major things I am treating regularly in higher level athletes. Today we are going to talk about Pelvic floor muscle pain, and next week I will post about stress incontinence. Let’s get started.
Pelvic floor muscle-related pain
What is it? This problem occurs when the muscle of the pelvic floor become tender, overactive or hypervigilant(basically contracting with too much intensity to guard/protect the pelvis) Often when this happens, people will feel pain in the lower abdomen, groin, hip, buttock or low back—or may feel actual vaginal/rectal pain. The pain may also be associated with changes in bladder function (like increased urinary frequency, urgency or leakage), bowel function (like constipation or difficulty emptying bowels) or sexual function (typically pain or discomfort during intercourse.) However, sometimes people will experience pain without any of these other symptoms at all.
Why does this happen? This is the kicker–We don’t always know exactly why. However, there are some common reasons why the pelvic floor muscles might begin responding this way. First, we have to remember that the pelvic floor is just one part of a team of muscles that work together to modulate pressure within the abdomen and pelvis. So, the diaphragm, transverse abdominis, multifidus and pelvic floor work together to control intra-abdominal pressure, and pre-activate to support the spine and pelvis during movement.
Dysfunction in any one of these muscles can lead to problems with others. For example, I often find tender, irritated muscles in women after childbirth, especially those who have a diastasis rectus (separation at midline between the two rectus abdominis muscles). This separation impacts the stability at the abdominal wall, generally leading to gripping of the internal and external oblique muscles, alterations in ability to breathe optimally, and thus gripping at the pelvic floor muscles. We see a similar pattern occur in men and women with hypermobility. We can also see dysfunction creep in as a motor adaptation when someone has a history of low back, hip, neck, knee or other musculoskeletal problems.
In terms of athletes in particular (and yes, this includes those of you doing Crossfit, Barre, personal training, yoga, pilates, and other regular exercise— YOU are an athlete J), I often find that when a person lacks dynamic stability, the pelvic floor will compensate to give that stability. If a person is then doing regular exercise and does not have the adequate control, form, or force modulation to perform, these compensations become more prevalent and can then lead to pain.
What can you do about it? If you think your pelvic floor may be a contributor to pain, the first step is to seek evaluation. It can be helpful to initially seek a medical evaluation to rule out other potential pain contributors (ovarian cysts, inguinal hernias, etc.). Then, I do strongly recommend seeking an evaluation by a skilled physical therapist with advanced training in pelvic health. If you are living in a state that allows self-referral to physical therapy (like Georgia!), you can see a physical therapist without a physician referral; however, if in doubt, check with your local physical therapy office.
Treatment for pelvic floor related pain in athletes typically focuses initially on re-establishing the optimal function of the pelvic floor muscles within the team of muscles we spoke about earlier. This is done by teaching the patient how to relax the pelvic floor muscles, use the amazing diaphragm in the proper coordination with the pelvic floor and abdominals, and often includes manual therapy to help reduce muscle tenderness and/or improve connective tissue or neural mobility around the pelvis. A skilled pelvic floor PT will not only assess the pelvic floor muscles, but will examine you from a whole-body perspective—watching you move in various motions, looking at your hips/back/knees/ankles and assessing the soft tissues that could be contributors to your symptoms. This allows us to not only identify which tissues are contributing to the pain you experience, but also to identify any abnormal movement patterns which could be leading to the compensation in the first place.
Once the pelvic floor muscles are no longer hypervigilant/tender/overactive, we focus on restoring healthy movement. This includes integrating the pelvic floor and its team within those movements—the right way! Typically at this point, we progress the athlete to his or her specific movements—whether that is Olympic lifting, squats, or a yoga warrior series—teaching the athlete proper form all while integrating the right muscle firing patterns to adequately stabilize.
Do I have to stop exercising while in PT? This is always a tough one. I totally recognize that many adult athletes love their work-out routines and benefit so much by them—physically, socially, and emotionally. Sometimes there will be particular exercises that are aggravating symptoms or worsening the problems the person is experiencing. In those cases, I often will recommend holding off on those movements for a short time period. While holding off on some exercises, we often can still work together to find exercises and movements that are appropriate and totally acceptable to keep performing! I know this period can be frustrating for patients as it is difficult to take a break from something you love, but I promise, it’s short! Our goal ultimately is to get people back to the activities they love as quickly and safely as we can!
If you are having pelvic pain during exercise, and you live in the Atlanta area, I would LOVE to see you! Feel free to contact me or call my office for more information!
I always love to hear from you! Please let me know if you have any questions or feel free to chime in if I left something out! Happy Thursday!
I normally am not huge into re-blogging other people’s blogs–simply because I want my blog to mostly be filled with original thoughts, articles, etc…written by, well, me. BUT, when I read this blog by my colleague, Kate Mihevc Edwards, published on The Happiest Doula, I just had to.
I have always loved running–ever since running cross-country and track & field in high school. I hope to run as long as I can–which is why I am passionate about women (& men!) having the ability to return to running and other forms of exercise if they have that desire. My love of running and love of all things related to pelvic floor health often is paired together (eg. this post on running and the pelvic floor). I actually planned on writing a post this week specifically on returning to running after a baby…but guess what? Kate did it for me! For those of you who don’t know, Kate is an amazing clinician who works for Back 2 Motion Physical Therapy (a sister clinic of mine) across town in Atlanta. She specializes in runners and triathletes, and is VERY good at what she does. Soooo, I hope you enjoy her awesome post:
I am a mom, a runner and a triathlete. I have the benefit of being a physical therapist (PT) that specializes in treating runners and triathletes and I work in an office with two knowledgeable pelvic health PTs. My son just turned one and I, too, am still re-learning my body. Over and over I have heard friends and patients talk about wearing a pad when they run because of leaking or getting a stress fracture while they are breastfeeding. I hear about how exhausted they are how hard they are working to get their abs back to pre-pregnancy form.
Whether you were a running before you had a baby or not, running is an attractive exercise option for moms. It is much easier to lace up your shoes run out the door than going to a gym. For me, running is a gift; it allows me a few minutes of alone time as well as some needed freedom by taking my son with me on the run. A recent study even found that women who ran while breastfeeding had a significantly lower incidence of postpartum depression.*
It is difficult to find information or resources for women when we return to running or start running postpartum. Most women have no idea where to start, what to expect, how their body should feel and what is/isn’t normal. By addressing these issues and educating ourselves and others about how our bodies change during the months after childbirth, we can significantly reduce the potential for injury.