Guest Post: There’s a pelvis… in your brain?!

As an educator, one of my biggest rewards is working with students and clinicians as they learn and grow in the field of pelvic floor physical therapy. This past winter, I was fortunate to work with Amanda Bastien, SPT, a current 3rd year doctoral student at Emory University. Amanda is passionate about helping people, dedicated to learning, and truly just an awesome person to be around, and I am so grateful to have played a small role in her educational journey! Today, I am thrilled to introduce her to all of you! Amanda shares my fascination with the brain and particularly the role it can play when a person is experiencing persistent pain. I hope you all enjoy this incredible post from Amanda! 

Have you ever been told your pain is “all in your head?” Unfortunately, this is often the experience of many people experiencing persistent pelvic pain. Interestingly enough, the brain itself is actually very involved in producing pain, particularly when a person has experienced pain for a long period of time. In this post, I’ll explain to you how someone can come to have pain that is ingrained in their brain, literally, and more importantly, what we can do to help them get better.

Pelvis image

Our brains are incredible! They are constantly changing and adapting; every second your brain fine tunes connections between brain cells, called neurons, reflecting your everyday experiences. This works like a bunch of wires that can connect to one another in different pathways and can be re-routed. Another way to say this is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This process of learning and adapting with experiences is known as neuroplasticity or neural plasticity. It is a well-documented occurrence in humans and animals. If you’re interested in learning more, this is a great article that summarizes the principles underlying neuroplasticity.1

In the case of pain…. well, here’s where it gets a little complicated.

The brain has distinct physical areas that have been found to relate to different functions and parts of the body.

brain areas

Those two spots in the middle that read “primary motor cortex” and “primary sensory cortex” relate to the control of body movements, and the interpretation of stimulus as sensations like hot, cold, sharp, or dull. By interpretation, I mean the brain uses this area to make sense of the signals it’s receiving from the rest of the body and decides what this feels like. These areas can be broken down by body structure, too.

In this next image, you’re looking at the brain like you’ve cut it down the middle, looking from the back of someone’s head to the front. This image illustrates the physical areas of the brain that correlate to specific limbs and body parts. This representation is known as a homunculus.

homonculus

See how the hand and facial features look massive? That’s because we do a LOT with our hands, have delicate control of our facial expressions, and feel many textures with both. Thus, these areas need a lot of physical space in our brains. In this image, the pelvis takes up less space than other areas, but for people who pay a lot of attention to their pelvis, this area may be mapped differently, or not as well-defined. We know that the brain changes due to experiences, and ordinarily, it has a distinct physical map of structures. But what happens when that brain map is drawn differently with experiences like pain?

Studies suggest that over time, the brain undergoes changes related to long-lasting pain. If someone is often having to pay attention to an area that is painful, they may experience changes in how their brain maps that experience on a day-to-day basis. This varies from person to person, and we’re still learning how this happens. Here’s an example: in a recent study, people experiencing long-standing pelvic pain were found to have more connections in their brains than in those of a pain-free control group, among other findings. The greater the area of pain, the more brain changes were found.2 My point here is to provide you with an example of how the brain can undergo changes with pain that can help explain how strange and scary it can feel for some. Read on to find out how we can work to reverse this!

The process that makes pain occur is complex. It often starts with some injury, surgery, or other experience causing tissue stress. First, cells respond by alerting nerves in the tissues. Then, that signal moves to the spinal cord and the brain, also called the central nervous system. The brain weighs the threat of the stress; neurons communicate with each other throughout the brain, in order to compare the stressor to prior experiences, environments, and emotions. The brain, the commander-in-chief, decides if it is dangerous, and responds with a protective signal in the form of pain.

Pain is a great alarm to make you change what you’re doing and move away from a perceived danger. Over time, however, the brain can over-interpret tissue stress signals as dangerous. Imagine an amplifier getting turned up on each danger signal, although the threat is still the same. This is how tissue stress can eventually lead to overly sensitive pain, even after the tissues themselves are healed.3

Additionally, your brain attempts to protect the area by smudging its drawing of the sensory and motor maps in a process called cortical remapping. Meaning, neurons have fired so much in an area that they rewire and connections spread out. This may be apparent if pain becomes more diffuse, spreads, and is harder to pinpoint or describe. For example, pain starts at the perineum or the tailbone, but over time is felt in a larger area, like the hips, back, or abdomen. To better understand this, I highly recommend watching this video by David Butler from the NOI group.

He’s great, huh? I could listen to him talk all day!

Pain alarms us to protect us, sometimes even when there’s nothing there! After having a limb amputated, people may feel as though the limb is still present, and in pain. This is called phantom limb pain. The limb has changed, but the connections within the brain have not. However, over time the connections in the brain will re-route. I share this example to illustrate how the brain alone can create pain in an area. Pain does not equal tissue injury; the two can occur independently of one another.4 Pain signals can also be created or amplified by thoughts, emotions, or beliefs regarding an injury. Has your pain ever gotten worse when you were stressed?

There is also some older case evidence that describes how chronic pain and bladder dysfunction evolved for people after surgery, in a way that suggests this type of brain involvement.5  Another case study describes a patient with phantom sensations of menstrual cramps following a total hysterectomy! 6

So, can we change the connections that have already re-mapped?

Yes!! The brain is ALWAYS changing, remember? There are clinicians who can help. Physicians have medications that target the central nervous system to influence how it functions. Psychologists and counselors can help people better understand their mental and emotional experiences as they relate to pain, and to work through these to promote health. Physical therapy provides graded exposure to stimuli such as movement or touch, in a therapeutic way that promotes brain changes and improved tolerance to those stimuli that are painful. This can result in a clearer, well-defined brain map and danger signals that are appropriate for the actual level of threat. Physical therapists also help people improve their strength and range of motion, so they can move more, hurt less, and stay strong when life throws heavy things at us!  It is SO important to return to moving normally and getting back to living! Poor movement strategies can prolong pain and dysfunction, and this can turn a short-term stressor into long-lasting, sensitized pain. (See Jessica’s blog here: LINK)

Of course, with any kind of treatment, it also depends on the unique individual. Everyone has personal experiences associated with pain that can make treatment different for them. We are still learning about how neural plasticity occurs, but the brain DOES change. This is how we are all able to adapt to new environments and circumstances around us! Pain is our protective mechanism, but sometimes it can get out of hand. While tissue injury can elicit pain, the nervous system can become overly sensitized to stimulus and cause pain with no real danger. This perception can spread beyond the original problem areas, and this can occur from connections remapping in the brain and the spinal cord. For pelvic pain, treatment is often multidisciplinary, but should include a pelvic health physical therapist who can facilitate tissue healing, optimal movement, and who can utilize the principles of neural plasticity to promote brain changes and return to function.

Amanda_Bastien2Amanda Bastien is a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, currently completing her Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree, graduating in May 2018. Amanda has a strong interest in pelvic health, orthopedics, neuroscience and providing quality information and care to her patients. 

References:

  1. Kleim, J.A., Jones, T.A. (2008). Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: Implications for rehabilitation after brain damage. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51, S225-S239. Retrieved from: https://www.jsmf.org/meetings/2008/may/Kleim%20&%20Jones%202008.pdf
  2. Kutch, J. J., Ichesco, E., Hampson, J. P., et al. (2017). Brain signature and functional impact of centralized pain: a multidisciplinary approach to the study of chronic pelvic pain (MAPP) network study. PAIN, 158, 1979-1991.
  3. Origoni, M., Maggiore, U. L. R., Salvatore, S., Candiani, M. (2014). Neurobiological mechanisms of pelvic pain. BioMed Research International, 2014, 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/903848
  4. Flor, H., Elbert, T., Knecht, S. et al. (1995). Phantom -limb pain as a perceptual correlate of cortical reorganization following an arm amputation. Nature, 375, 482-484.
  5. Zermann, D., Ishigooka, M., Doggweiler, R., Schmidt, R. (1998) Postoperative chronic pain and bladder dysfunction: Windup and neuronal plasticity – do we need a more neuroulogical approach in pelvic surgery? Urological Neurology and Urodynamics, 160, 102-105.
  6. Dorpat, T.L. (1971) Phantom sensations of internal organs. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 12(1), 27-35.

 

 

FAQ: Isn’t everyone’s pelvic floor a little tender?

“Does that feel tender or uncomfortable to you at all?”

“Well yeah, but it’s because you’re pushing on it. I mean, I think anyone would hurt if you pressed there.”

This conversation is a common one that takes place in my treatment room. As a physical therapist specializing in pelvic health, I am frequently the first person to actually examine in detail the muscles of the pelvic floor by a vaginal or rectal digital assessment. Tenderness in the muscles on examination is very common in those experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction; however, this is often surprising to many people. The assumption that “everyone” would have tenderness in their pelvic floor muscles is extremely common, especially if the person doesn’t have a primary complaint of vaginal or rectal pain to “explain” the pain they feel.

Should healthy pelvic floor muscles be tender? Does everyone have tender pelvic floor muscles? 

It’s an important question with far-reaching implications. If everyone has tenderness in their pelvic floor muscles, then would it really matter if I found it on an examination? Would it be a waste of time to focus our energy in the clinic on trying to reduce that tenderness? Thankfully, research thus far has helped to shed some light on this issue. In summary, healthy muscles should not hurt. Thus, tenderness does help us see that some type of dysfunction is present. Let’s look at the research.

  • Montenegro and colleagues (2010) examined 48 healthy women as well as 108 women with chronic pelvic pain. They found that 58% of the women with chronic pelvic pain had pelvic muscle tenderness compared to just 4% of healthy subjects. They also, of note, found higher rates of pain during sexual intercourse and constipation in those who had pelvic muscle tenderness.
  • Adams and colleagues (2013) found the prevalence of pelvic floor muscle tenderness in 5618 women referred to a university-based practice to be around 24%. They also found that women with tenderness had higher levels of bothersome symptoms related to prolapse, bowel and bladder dysfunction (by close to 50%!)
  • Hellman and colleagues (2015) examined 23 women with chronic pelvic pain, 23 women with painful bladder syndrome and 42 pain-free control subjects. They found that the two groups experiencing pain had increased pain sensitivity with lower pain-pressure thresholds compared to the pain-free subjects. They also had a longer duration of pain after the initial sensation (3.5 minutes vs. 0-1 minute in controls)
  • What about in pregnancy? Well, Fitzgerald and Mallinson (2012) examined 51 pregnant women– 26 with pelvic girdle pain and 25 without–and guess what they found? Significantly more women in the pain group had tenderness at the pelvic floor muscles and obturator internus compared to the group without pain.
  • What about in women who have never been pregnant? Well, Kavvadias and colleagues (2013) examined 17 healthy volunteers who had never been pregnant and found overall very low pain scores with palpation of the pelvic floor muscles. They concluded that pain in asymptomatic women should be considered an uncommon finding.

So, in summary. Healthy muscles should not hurt. If you are having problems like urinary, bowel or sexual dysfunction and you have tender pelvic floor muscles, this may be something worth addressing! See a pelvic PT– we are happy to help!

Have a wonderful week!

Jessica

 

Head, Shoulders, Knees…and Pelvic Floor!

I spent my first few years of practice going deep into the pelvis… and my most recent few years, desperately trying to get out. Now, I know that may seem like a strange statement to read coming from me, the pelvic floor girl. But bear with me. I love the pelvic floor, I really do. I enjoy learning about the pelvis, treating bowel/bladder problems, helping my patients with their most intimate of struggles. I like to totally “nerd out” reading about the latest research related to complex nerve pain, hormonal and nutritional influences, and complicated or rarely understood diagnoses. However, the more I learned about the pelvic floor, the more I discovered that in order to provide my patients with the best care I can possibly provide, I needed to journey outside the pelvis and integrate the rest of the body.

You see, the pelvic floor does not work in isolation.

It is not the only structure preventing you from leaking urine.

It is not the sole factor in allowing you to have pleasurable sexual intercourse.

It is not the only structure stabilizing your tailbone as you move.

It is simply one gear inside the fascinating machine of the body.

And, the incredible thing about the body is that a problem above or below that gear, can actually influence the function of the gear itself! And that is pretty incredible! One of the patients that most inspired me to really start my journey outside of the pelvis was an 18-year-old girl I treated 4 years ago. She was a senior in high school and prior to the onset of her pelvic pain had been an incredible athlete– playing soccer, volleyball and ice hockey. Since developing pelvic pain, she had to stop all activities. Her pain led to severe nausea, and was greatly impacting her senior year. When I examined her, I noticed some interesting patterns in the way she walked. With further questioning, she ended up telling me that a year ago, she experienced a fracture of her tibia (the bone by her knee) while playing soccer. She was immobilized in a brace for about a month, then cleared to resume all activity. (Yep, no physical therapy). Looking closer, she had significant weakness around her knee that was influencing the way she moved, and leading to a compensatory “gripping” pattern in her pelvic floor muscles to attempt to stabilize her hips and legs during movement. So, we treated her knee (She actually ended up having a surgery for a meniscal tear that had not been discovered by her previous physician), and guess what? Her pelvic pain was eliminated. BOOM. If you want to read more about her story, I actually wrote the case up for Jessica McKinney’s blog and pelvic health awareness project, Share MayFlowers, in 2013.

So, what else is connected to the pelvic floor? Here are a few interesting scenarios:

  • Poor mobility in the neck and upper back can actually lead to neural tension throughout the body– yes, including the nerves that go to the pelvic floor. (I’ve had patients bend their neck to look down and experience an increase in tailbone pain. How amazing is that?)
  • Being stuck in a slumped posture can cause a person to have decreased excursion of his or her diaphragm, which can then put the pelvic floor in a position in which it is unable to contract or relax the way it needs to.
  • Grinding your teeth at night? That increased tension in the jaw can impact the intrathoracic pressure (from glottis to diaphragm), which in turn, impacts the intra-abdominal pressure (from diaphragm to pelvic floor) and, you guessed it, your pelvic floor muscles!
  • An ankle injury may cause a person to change the way he or she walks, which could increase the work one hip has to do compared to the other. This can cause certain muscles to fatigue and become sore and tender, including the pelvic floor muscles!

Pretty cool right? And the amazing thing is that this is simply scratching the surface! The important thing to understand here is that you are a person, not a body part! Be cautious if you are working with someone who refuses to look outside of your “problem” to see you as a whole. And if you have a feeling in your gut that something might be connected to what you have going on, it really might be! Speak up!

As always, I love to hear from you! Have you learned of any interesting connections between parts of your body? For my fellow pelvic PTs out there, what cool clinical correlations have you found?

Have a great Tuesday!

Jessica

Wanna read more? Check out this prior post on connections between the diaphragm and the rest of the body!

 

Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You (Part 1): Visual Illusions

Falling in love is an incredible feeling, isn’t it? One we don’t tend to forget very quickly. At least, that’s how it was for me and Neuroscience. I remember clearly when the falling in love started to take place. Junior year in college, reading a book called  by V.S. Ramachadran, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind,
for my Neuroanatomy and Physiology of Human Movement class. I remember being glued to that book from cover to cover, only stopping briefly to write down a quick quote or call my parents to tell them the amazing piece of information I just learned (Yes, I still call them to tell them fun things like that :))

The amazing thing, that I’m sure you are realizing too, is that our brains are simply incredible. We have the ability to take in millions of tiny pieces of information in microseconds, integrate it within everything we believe to be true about our world and the universe and then make decisions on what that information means. It’s incredible, really. But did you know that this ultimate perception can lead to misinformation? Did you know your brain can really really mess with you?

Optical Illusions

One of the most well-known tricks of the brain is an optical illusion. Do you see a bunny or a duck?

Illusions DuckBunny

Which square is darker, A or B? (They’re actually the same color!)

128px-Optical_illusion
By Wuhazet – Henryk Żychowski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So, how did your brain trick you? Your nervous system is constantly gathering information about the body and the environment through multiple different inputs: visual, mechanical, temperature, proprioceptive (the position of your joints), vestibular (your inner ear). This process is called sensation. Perception, then, is your brain’s interpretation of the information it receives. The brain receives and filters the information from various sensors and then interprets its meaning to create our experience. In these cases, your brain receives the signal (visual input) and then perceives meaning based on the information, and your experience. In the first picture, your brain likely can see either a duck or a bunny depending on how it chooses to interpret the information. In the second one, your brain took into account the shadow that the green cylinder was casting on the board– thus, your brain tricked you into thinking that tile B must be lighter than tile A (although, really they are the same!) And the third one, your brain saw the arrows in the first one as narrowing in the space, and the second as expanding it–even though the lines are the same length. Pretty cool, right?!

Magic Tricks 

I have always loved a good magic trick. I remember seeing my first “real” magic show in Las Vegas at Harrah’s Casino. I was 11 or 12 I think, and was completely mesmerized by Mac King and his comedy magic show. My family just loved it! We were amazed, and couldn’t figure out how he did what he did.

(This is actually pretty close to what that magic show looked and felt like–so enjoy being transported back to 12-year old Jessica’s life!) 

I still love watching a great magic show. From street magicians like David Blaine to bigger than life magicians like David Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy, magicians have the ability to suspend our belief, challenge our perceptions and allow us to believe we are seeing the impossible.

So what are magic tricks? How do they feel so “real” to us watching?

In a way, magic tricks are very similar to optical illusions. Magicians are truly masters at using the brain to fool us into truly seeing something that did not happen. Magic tricks work based on several key principles. First, as we discussed above, your brain constantly creates perceptions based on the sensory inputs it receives from the environment. As was shown in our “illusions” section, the perception does not always directly match the visual input as our brain integrates vision with our previous knowledge, emotions, experiences, etc. to make predictions and ultimately create perception. These predictions are precisely what is exploited during magic tricks. This great article gives the example of the “vanishing ball” trick. In this trick, the magician throws the ball up in the air several times, and finally on the last one, the ball appears to vanish out of the air. But did it really vanish? Of course not! The magician used our brain’s predictions in his favor…thus, we saw the magician continuing to look up toward the ball, we saw the hand move in a “throwing pattern.” and the brain cut a few corners to tell us the ball had been thrown! While we’re busy watching that magician’s face, the ball is then palmed away, and our brain perceives it has vanished! Pretty cool, right? (check out the article for a larger, more detailed explanation!)

Magic tricks also work by confusing our brain with conflicting inputs and playing with our attention. For example, we are much more easily tricked and distracted when we have to multitask and focus on multiple different things at once. This is common with card tricks and other illusions. Emotions (such as humor, story-telling, etc) can also lead to some brain-trickery as it again creates a distraction for the brain, forcing the brain to “predict” to fill in the missing pieces.

It’s really, quite incredible, and learning about all of this actually has made me respect magicians even more as fellow neuroscientists! Check out these excellent articles if you want to dive a little deeper and further understand more of what happens with magic tricks!

Now…You may be thinking… “What the heck Jessica? This is a “pelvic-focused” blog! Why are you writing about optical illusions and magic tricks!?” Well my dear blog reader, you’ll have to find out… Stay tuned for Part 2- Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You: Pain

Guest Post: Rib cage position, breathing and your pelvic floor

I am thrilled today to have my colleague and friend, Seth Oberst, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS (that’s a lot of letters, right?!), guest blogging for me. I have known Seth for a few years, and have consistently been impressed with his expansive knowledge and passion for treating a wide range of patient populations (from men and women with chronic pain, to postpartum moms, and even to high level olympic athletes!) Recently, Seth started working with me at One on One in Vinings/Smyrna, which is super awesome because now we get to collaborate regularly in patient care!  Since Seth started with us, we have been co-treating several of my clients with pelvic pain, diastasis rectus, and even post-surgical problems, and Seth has a unique background and skill set which has been extremely valuable to my population (and in all reality, to me too!). If you live in the Atlanta area, I strongly recommend seeing Seth for any orthopedic or chronic pain problems you are having–he rocks! So, I asked Seth to guest blog for us today…and he’ll be talking about your diaphragm, rib cage position, and the impact of this on both the pelvis and the rest of the body! I hope you enjoy his post! ~ Jessica 

The muscles of the pelvic floor and the diaphragm (our primary muscle of breathing) are mirror images of each other. What one does so does the other. Hodges found that the pelvic floor has both postural and respiratory influences and there’s certainly a relationship between breathing difficulty and pelvic floor dysfunction. (JR note: We’ve chatted about this before, so if you need a refresher, check out this post) So one of the best ways we can improve pelvic floor dysfunction is improving the way we breathe and the position of our ribcage. Often times, we learn to breathe only in certain mechanical positions and over time and repetition (after all we breathe around 20,000 times per day), this becomes the “normal” breathing posture.

Clinically, the breathing posture I see most commonly is a flared ribcage position in which the ribs are protruding forward. This puts the diaphragm in a position where it cannot adequately descend during inhalation so instead it pulls the ribs forward upon breathing in. The pelvis mirrors this position such that it is tipped forward, causing the muscles of the pelvic floor to increase their tension. (JR note: We see this happen all the time in men and women with pelvic pain!) Normal human behavior involves alternating cycles of on and off, up and down, without thinking about it. However, with stress and injury we lose this harmony causing the ribs to stay flared and the pelvis to stay tilted. Ultimately this disrupts the synchrony of contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and pelvic floor, particularly when there is an asymmetry between the right and left sides (which there often is).

Rib Flare PRI

Rib PRI

Jessica has written extensively on a myriad of pelvic floor issues (this IS a pelvic health blog, after all) that can be caused by the altered control and position of the rib cage and pelvis that I described above. But, these same altered positions can cause trouble up and down the body. Here are a few ways:

  1. Shoulder problems: The ribcage is the resting place for the scapulae by forming a convex surface for the concave blades. With a flared, overextended spine and ribs the shoulder blades do not sit securely on their foundation. This is a main culprit for scapular winging (something you will often see at the local gym) because the muscles that control the scapulae are not positioned effectively. And a poorly positioned scapula leads to excessive forces on the shoulder joint itself often causing pain when lifting overhead.
  2. Back pain: When stuck in a constant state of extension (ribs flared), muscles of the back and hips are not in a strong position to control the spine subjecting the back to higher than normal forces repeatedly over time. This often begins to manifest with tight, toned-up backs that you can’t seem to loosen with traditional “stretches”.
  3. Hip impingement: With the pelvis tilted forward, the femurs run into the pelvis more easily when squatting, running, etc. By changing the way we control the pelvis (and by association the rib cage), we can create more space for the hip in the socket decreasing the symptoms of hip impingement (pinching, grinding sensation in groin/anterior hip). For more on finding the proper squat stance to reduce impingement, read this.
  1. Knee problems: An inability to effectively control the rib cage and pelvis together causes increased shearing forces to the knee joint as evidenced in this study. Furthermore, when we only learn to breathe in certain positions, it reduces our ability to adapt to the environment and move variably increasing our risk for injury.
  2. Foot/ankle: The foot and pelvis share some real estate in the brain and we typically see a connection between foot control and pelvic control. So if the pelvis is stuck in one position and cannot rotate to adapt, the foot/ankle complex is also negatively affected.

So, what can we do about this? One of the most important things we can do is learn to expand the ribcage in all directions instead of just in the front of the chest. This allows better alignment by keeping the ribs down instead of sacrificing position with every breath in. Here are few ideas to help bring the rib cage down over the pelvis and improve expansion. These are by no means complete:

**JR Note: These are great movements, but may not be appropriate for every person, especially if a person has pelvic pain and is at an early stage of treatment (or hasn’t been treated yet in physical therapy). For most clients, these exercises are ones that people can be progressed toward, however, make sure to consult with your physical therapist to help determine which movements will be most helpful for you! If you begin a movement, and it feels threatening/harmful to you or causes you to guard your muscles, it may not be the best movement for you at the time. 

**JR Note: This squat exercise is very similar to one we use for men and women with pelvic pain to facilitate a better resting state of the pelvic floor. It’s wonderful–but it does lead to a maximally lengthened pelvic floor, which can be uncomfortable sometimes for men and women who may have significant tenderness/dysfunction in the pelvic floor (like occurs in men and women with pelvic pain in the earliest stages of treatment).

Here’s another one I use often from Quinn Henoch, DPT:

Our ability to maintain a synchronous relationship between the rib cage and pelvis, predominantly thru breathing and postural control, will help regulate the neuromuscular system and ultimately distribute forces throughout the system. And a balanced system is a resilient and efficient one.

Seth-Oberst

Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT is a colleague of Jessica’s at One on One Physical Therapy in Atlanta, GA. He works with a diverse population of clients from those with chronic pain and fatigue to competitive amateur, CrossFit, professional, and Olympic athletes. Dr. Oberst specializes in optimizing movement and behavior to reduce dysfunction and improve resiliency, adaptability, and self-regulation.

 

For more from Seth check out his website and follow him on Twitter at @SethOberstDPT

Yes, Men can have pelvic pain too.

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>

cycling-862278_1920

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:

As always, I love to hear from you! Please feel free to comment with any questions or thoughts about any of this! Let’s keep the conversation going!

Wishing you an early, happy Thanksgiving! 

~Jessica

 

 

 

Do we move differently in pain?

For the past few years, my studies in pelvic health have taken me further and further outside of the pelvis.  I have learned and continue to learn how amazingly interconnected our bodies actually are. The pelvis can be influenced by the ankle, the knees—and even the neck! It is amazing and awe-inspiring. This past weekend, my studies took me to the Level 1 Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), where I spent 2 days learning a systematic way to evaluate movement and identify where dysfunctional patterns exist—head to toe! (How awesome is that?!) There are many different systems and programs out there for evaluating someone’s movement, and honestly, I don’t necessarily think one is superior to the other. I liked this one though, as it made sense to me and the initial screen could be completed in 2 minutes :).

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So, why is it important to look globally at human movement when a person is experiencing pain anywhere in the body? For lots of reasons, like I said above—but for the purpose of today’s post—because we now know that movement patterns do really change when a person is experiencing pain—and this is helpful initially and important—remember, your brain wants to protect you from experiencing harm! However, dysfunctional movement patterns, although helpful to the body in that moment, can persist and lead to further problems down the road.

Paul Hodges (a favorite researcher of mine!) and Kylie Tucker examined the current theories regarding movement adaptations to pain in a 2011 review published in the International Association for the Study of Pain. They looked at the current research regarding movement variations in pain, and frankly poked holes in the theories where holes needed poking.  They then presented a new theory on the motor adaptations to pain, and that’s what I would like to share with you today.

The theory they presented is based on the premise that movement adaptations occur to reduce pain and protect the painful part. The way in which a person does that actually varies and is flexible. Here are the basics of their theory, simplified, of course. I do encourage you to read the paper if you’re interested—it’s great!

  • Adaptation to pain involves redistribution of activity within and between muscles. Basically, the brain varies which pools of motoneurons fire in a muscle based on the individual and the task requirement. The common goal still is to protect the painful part from pain or injury, but the way the body does this can vary greatly. Interestingly, we know that the motoneurons active before and during pain tend to reduce activity, and the production of force actually seems to be maintained by a new population of units who were previously inactive. Normally, motoneuron units are recruited from smaller to larger pools to allow for a gradual increase in force—but in pain, a person often will have earlier recruitment of larger pools to basically allow for a faster development of force to get away from pain (think fight or flight response!). Also, the new population of active units may be altered to change the direction of the force generated by the muscle (again, aiming to help protect the painful structure). We also can see in some areas, like the trunk, that one muscle may become inhibited (like the transverse abdominis) while other larger muscles become more activated. This again, makes sense with the body’s goal of protection. Quick activation of larger motor units allows for a quick activation of a muscle to help protect and escape pain.
  • Adaptation to pain changes mechanical behavior. Basically, like we just discussed, the redistribution of activity within and between muscles changes the force and output of the muscle. Hodges & Tucker give us a few examples of this. First, they’ve found that when someone has knee pain, the quadriceps muscles fire differently to change the direction of knee extension by a few degrees. They also explain that the changes in muscle firing in the trunk muscles in someone with back pain leads to more stiffness and less control of movements and less anticipatory action. Basically, in each of these cases, the big picture motion stays the same, but there are small changes within how the body accomplishes those tasks.
  • Adaptation to pain leads to protection from pain or injury, or threatened pain or injury. Basically, this redistribution of muscle firing is done to protect against pain—or even the threat of pain. When a person experiences pain, the brain choses a new pattern to move to either splint the injured area, reduce the movement of the area, or alter the force on the area. The interesting piece here is that the body responds this way even when there is a perceived threat of pain! The key with all of this is that the adaptation varies significantly—not one pattern is seen for all types of pain, but the nervous system has a variety of options for protection!
  • Adaptation to pain involves changes at multiple levels of the motor system. So, although we know that the activation of motoneuron pools can change during pain, that alone does not describe the variability we see. We know now that the way the body changes movement can be influenced by structures in the brain, spinal cord or at the local level of the motoneuron. All of this is going to be influenced by the task at hand and the individual (thoughts about the pain, emotions, stressors, and previous experiences)
  • Adaptation to pain has short-term benefit, but with potential long-term consequences. Although the short-term benefit is protection of the painful area and prevention of further pain, this may lead to consequences down the road if the adaptation persists. Of course, we assume in this case that movement in a non-pain state is likely the most efficient and optimal way to move. So, changes over time could produce decreased movement variability, modified joint loading, modifications in walking patterns, joint load and ligamentous stress. Hodges and Tucker state that in order for these long-term consequences to occur, there would likely need to be a gradual maintaining of the compensation, thus that the nervous system did not recognize it being problematic. Basically, the brain slowly adapts to the new pattern and does not recognize the problems it could cause down the road.

Interesting stuff right? The tricky thing is, we don’t really know for certain how these long-term changes can impact the body—but we do know that one of the biggest risks for injury is previous injury. I can’t help but think that movement changes could possibly contribute. But how do we change this in a positive way?  I think the first step is understanding pain, learning what pain is and what pain is, and developing a healthy mindset toward pain—this alone goes a long way! We also have to look closely at our own emotions, our psychological state, our previous experiences, and understand how all of these things can influence how are brain chooses to respond to pain. But then, we need to identify which movements the body has changed, understand how the brain is varying movements to protect against pain, and then slowly provide variability with good force modulation in those movements to help the brain learn optimal, safe and pain-free ways to move again.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Cheers!

Jessica