I don’t know if you’ve realized it– but the pelvic floor has become crazy popular! This article by The Guardian was published 2 months ago. 3 different patients and a few friends forwarded it to me, as it highlights just how popular pelvic floor rehabilitation has become. And I’m not surprised. When I first started treating pelvic floor disorders, nearly every patient who came in the door had never heard of the pelvic floor, let alone, a physical therapist who treated the pelvic floor. They would look at me with a perplexed and nervous gaze as I would do my best to explain the anatomy and why there really was a GREAT reason that their doctor had recommended them to come see me. This situation repeated itself again, and again, and again.
But now, it’s actually a much more foreign experience. For the most part, my patients have some level of knowledge about the pelvic floor muscles. The internet and social media has allowed people more access to knowledge– including experts who make informative Tik-tok videos, infographics and blog posts 🙂 on their diagnoses and treatment options. This has created more informed consumers who are learning more about their health, care about their wellness, and are seeking to find the best answers for their care.
In fact, it now very rare for for someone to come in and tell me they’ve never heard of pelvic floor rehabilitation. And that is AMAZING my friend.
When I first moved to Atlanta in 2014, I could count the number of pelvic PTs in the area on one hand. Now?? The last time I counted, there were more than 30 of us. I’m sure that number is closer 50 or even more (I know this because nearly every level 1 pelvic floor course I teach has at least a few Atlanta based people in it!!). And while, again, this is amazing– it’s only barely scratching the surface of what is actually needed!
The reality is that pelvic floor problems are super common, and people dealing with pelvic floor problems are often struggling to find care! Look at some of these numbers:
So… while we are serving so so many more people than we used to, we are just scratching the surface! If you are new to this blog, and want to read a little bit more to start learning about the pelvic floor, check out some of these posts:
Also, if this is resonating with you, and you’re feeling like you may need some help, reach out and let us know!! You don’t need to be one of those statistics– you can get relief, you can feel better! And if you’re not ready to see someone in person, check out some of our mini-courses online on pelvic floor topics!
This past year, I was so fortunate to meet Dr. Yeni Abraham, an amazing pelvic health physical therapist and educator. Dr. Yeni is incredibly knowledgeable and owns a private practice, Triggered PT, in Arlington, TX. A few months ago, I saw Yeni post about traveling to pursue a specific training utilizing manual therapy to optimize fertility health, and I knew, I just had to talk with her!
I’ve been working with people struggling with conception for many years. I initially started helping this population around 10 years ago when I lived in Greenville, SC. I had connected with a few fertility specialists in the area, and they started referring patients to me who were trying to conceive, but had struggles related to pelvic pain and pain with sex. It was incredibly rewarding to work with these people, helping them feel better and have pain-free sex. And, that follow-up e-mail of, “Guess what? I’m PREGNANT!” was literally the absolute best!! So, I’ve known for a while that there is power in touch, helping a person connect with and optimize their bodies. And, through witnessing many of my friends, patients, and colleagues struggle with fertility challenges, I’ve learned that fertility challenges are complicated, multifactorial, and often require a team-based approach.
So, enter Dr. Yeni. This amazing, passionate person, who truly cares so much about helping people! Her journey toward helping this population was inspiring, and I’m amazed at what can be done to make a difference for people. I hope you’ll enjoy listening to her interview as much as I loved recording it!! Please know that Yeni sees patients in her office in Arlington, TX, and some patients additionally travel to see her. So, contact her if you want to learn more!! Thanks again Yeni!! <3
You all know by now that I’m fairly nerdy. I love reading research articles, trying to understand complex topics, and everything about learning. Honestly, I think that is why I love pelvic health so much! The pelvis is so complicated! There’s so much to know, and the more I learn, the more I truly realize how much more there is to know! As an anatomy nerd, you know I have favorite muscles. I’ve written about the respiratory diaphragm, who is one of my most favorites, but I haven’t spent much time introducing you to my other love~ the obturator internus!
Meet the Obturator Internus
The Obturator Internus (Or OI, as they are known by friends) is a muscle that lives inside your pelvis in the obturator foramen and attaches to the hip via the greater trochanter. You can see it here:
The OI has several major functions for the body. First, it is a deep hip external rotator, and has shown to be active during the movements of hip extension, external rotation and abduction. In fact, this research showed that it was the first muscle to turn on in these motions (which I theorize could be part of it’s connection to the pelvic floor muscles and the anticipatory role the pelvic floor has in movement, pressure management and postural stability). My theory on this makes sense when we look at some of the research on the involvement of the OI in hip stability. This excellent article identifies the obturator internus & externus, quadratus femoris, and gemelli as important synergistic muscles that work together to modulate the position of the femoral head in the acetabulum during movement. This is particularly cool because in many ways, this function is very similar to the pelvic floor muscles! The authors suggest a dynamic stabilizing role for these muscles, making subtle alterations in force to control the femoral head position.
This study also recognizes the stabilizing role the OI can play, particularly when it works as a team with the other deep hip rotators. The authors here highlight that the obturator internus, obturator externus, superior & inferior gemelli (who I affectionately call the gemelli brothers) are essentially fused. And this fusion, actually leads to a decent cross-sectional area and ability for force generation. The orientation of the fibers adds further credence to the view that these muscles are crucial to hip stability.
The OI shares fascial connections and attachments with the pelvic floor muscles, which makes it an even more unique muscle. The iliococcygeus attaches to the arcus tendoneus linea alba, a fascial line that is also an attachment of the obturator internus. Additionally, the pubococcygeus and OI are fascially connected around the pubic bone, and the fascia around the bladder and urethra also is connected to the OI. What does this mean? It means that the OI can be impacted by what happens at the pelvic floor and can impact what happens at the pelvic floor. And research tends to show this. This study showed that the vast majority of people with pelvic girdle pain have obturator internus tenderness. This study found that most people with chronic pelvic pain have obturator internus tenderness with palpation. And here’s another study that found that 45% of people with pelvic pain had tenderness at the obturator internus. Another study found that in people with lumbopelvic pain, experiencing urinary urgency, and central sensitization made them 2x more likely to have concurrent pelvic floor and OI involvement.
Finding the Obturator Internus
One of the cool things about the OI is that it is a muscle that can be palpated both internally via the vagina or rectum, and also externally. The OI is palpated internally with an examining finger angling out toward the hip. You can see the palpation here on my lovely pelvic model.
The OI can also be palpated by examining medial to the ischial tuberosity, then angling in toward the obturator foramen. You can see where palpation would be happening here.
Treating the Obturator Internus
If you think your Obturator Internus is involved in the pain or pelvic floor problems you’re experiencing, the first step is to have it examined. Your PT can palpate these muscles as described above. The muscles should be soft and move well, so they should not be sensitive or painful to touch. If they are, they could potentially be involved in the pelvic problems you are experiencing.
From a treatment standpoint, we can address the OI by first improving the mobility via gentle manual therapy, and then improving the overall hip stability (retraining the anticipatory function through the relationship between the pelvic floor & OI). It usually isn’t the “sole” problem happening. But including it within your treatment can be key to helping you get better!
Bowel problems are so frustrating. Let’s be real. Constipation remains the #1 GI complaint in the country and impacts millions of people (pun unintended, but I’ll take it!). I love writing about pooping, and we love treating poop problems at Southern Pelvic Health (both virtually & in-person!!). The cool thing about poop, is that often the smallest changes in our habits can make BIG differences. A lot of this is due to the physiology of the digestive tract. Our habits—what we do during the day—can hugely impact this physiology, and that’s what I want to talk with you about today.
How do you maximize the efficiency of your digestive system and build a stellar bowel routine so you can poop better?
To understand this, let’s look at the digestive system a little more closely.
When you eat food, digestion begins in the mouth. Chewing helps to break up the food, and your saliva begins to break down the nutrients. Chewing alone is an essential part of digestion. In fact, most of us don’t tend to chew enough. I’ve been there! Years of working as a physical therapist at busy practices, led to a habit of inhaling my food rather than eating slowly and actually enjoying the process. Did you know that in order to adequately digest an almond, you have to chew that almond over 20 times? I learned that a few years ago when I interviewed Jessica Drummond- an incredible clinical nutritionist who also happens to be a pelvic PT. You can see the whole interview here if you’re interested!
After we swallow our food, the food travels down the esophagus into the stomach. Here, the stomach churns the food, mixing it with acid and juices and continues the process of digestion. When food enters the stomach, this triggers an important reflex called the gastrocolic reflex, which pushes prior meals and snacks through the rest of the digestive tract. This reflex is SUPER important to know to help stimulate regular movement in the GI system.
The food then exits the stomach and enters the small intestines. Did you know that if you uncoiled your small intestines, they would be 20 feet long? The intestines are where the majority of digestion occurs. Juices from the pancreas and gall bladder are added in here to aid in processing our nutrients. Food moves throughout these coils, then enters into the large intestine via the ileocecal valve.
The large intestine, or colon, is the major water recycling plant in the body. The colon recycles about 70% of the fluid we take in to use throughout the body. It continuously removes fluid from our stool…. So, what do you think happens if you don’t drink enough fluid? Or what do you think happens if your colon moves a little too slowly? Yep, that’s right. You end up with hard and dehydrated stool. When stool enters into the last part of the colon, the rectum, the stretching of the walls of the rectum trigger another reflex. First, an incredible reflex called the “sampling response” takes place. In this reflex, a small amount of contents are allowed to enter the anal canal. Your nerves here sense what is present, and tell your brain if the contents are liquid, gas or solid. (Amazing, right?!) Now, this reflex can sometimes be dysfunctional. So, if you struggle with feeling a strong need to poop, and when you get to the bathroom, it’s only gas? That’s this reflex. OR, if you feel like you have some gas to release, and when you release it, it’s actually a little bit of stool? That’s a sampling problem as well. And guess what—we can actually do things to retrain and improve this reflex.
As the stool is filling the rectum, and stretch occurs, the brain will receive the message of what is in the rectum, and gets to decide what to do about it. If there is just gas, you may choose to release it or wait a bit to release it. If it is liquid, your brain knows you better get to the bathroom QUICK! Liquid stool is hard to hold back for too long—the muscles fatigue—THIS is why chronic diarrhea can lead so often to bowel accidents! And if the stool is solid, you can actually defer and postpone the urge, until an appropriate time to go. The challenge there is that postponing frequently can make it so the muscular walls of the colon help you less when it is actually time to go to the bathroom.
When it is an appropriate time to go, you then sit on the toilet, relax your pelvic floor muscles, and this stimulates a defecation reflex which will allow the rectum to empty via the anal canal. Sometimes, we need to generate some pressure to assist this process, and sometimes, the muscular walls of the colon take care of it themselves.
So, let’s get down to it.
How do you use the process of digestion to build your bowel routine?
Step 1: Eat at regular intervals during the day to regularly stimulate your gastrocolic reflex.
Remember, this pushes things through the system, so it needs to happen often. The colon LOVES consistency, and HATES change. So, skipping meals? Eating really large meals sometimes, then nothing the rest of the day? All of this can impact your bowel function.
Step 2:Slow down & chew your meals.
Remember, chewing begins digestion, so, stop what you’re doing and eat mindfully and peacefully. Also, digestion requires a lot of parasympathetic activity—this is your resting & relaxing nervous system—so, slowing down and making time to eat can help stimulate that too.
Step 3:If you need the bowels to move better, eat “bowel stimulating” foods/drinks around the time of day you normally go to the bathroom.
What stimulates the bowels? Warm drinks (especially coffee—because the caffeine is actually an irritant to the GI tract!) are a great place to start. Also, spicy foods can help stimulate the GI system to move.
Step 4:Sit on the toilet around the same time each day, preferably, after a meal.
Remember that gastrocolic reflex? That reflex is helping to move things through the system, so after a meal is a great time to spend a few minutes relaxing on the toilet.
Step 5: Exercise!
Yep, exercise also stimulates the peristalsis of the GI tract! So, aim to get in regular bouts of exercise. And, it doesn’t need to be too extreme? Even going on a 10 minute walk can help get things moving.
What does this actually look like in practice? Here’s a sample routine!
Jane wakes up in the morning and takes the dogs on a short 10 minute walk. She gets home and makes a cup of coffee and her breakfast. She eats breakfast slowly, taking time to chew her food. (Jane also makes sure that she is getting plenty of fiber and whole fruits/veggies in her diet—because this matters too for her stool consistency!). After breakfast, Jane goes and sits on the toilet. She sits in a nice comfortable position, relaxes, breathes, and thinks about her day—spending 5 minutes without trying to force anything to happen. After a few minutes, she starts to feel the need to have a bowel movement. She uses what she learned in the “How to Poop” article, and gently pushes with good mechanics to assist her rectum in emptying her bowels. Jane then goes about her day, eating small amounts every few hours to stimulate her GI system.
Now, it’s your turn my friend! How is your bowel routine? What can you change to actually use your physiology and poop better?
2 weeks ago, we chatted about what exactly is a diastasis rectus abdominus (DRA) and how to check to see if you have one. Today, we’re going to talk about how pelvic floor physical therapists evaluate a person with DRA, and what can be done to improve this. If you are struggling with support at your belly, I also hope you will join us for our upcoming LIVE class focused on this exact topic! Sara Reardon and I invited Sarah Duvall, an incredible expert, to join us for a 90-minute class on Diastasis Recti Rehabilitation. We took a lot of time to plan out this content, and I have to tell you all– this class is going to rock! The LIVE event is coming up Sunday May 3rd at 3pm EST, and it will be available after as a recording. We have a lot of great bonuses also– including handouts on exercises to get started and a lot more! Registration for the LIVE class is limited, so don’t wait to sign-up!
As we discussed previously, DRA involves an increased gap between the two bellies of the rectus abdominis muscle and a loss of support at the abdomen. Often times, people experiencing this will feel like they don’t have as much control or stability at their belly, and they may feel a bulging at their belly (some will even feel like they look pregnant when they aren’t!) We also discussed how to check to see if you do have a DRA. Now, let’s talk about how we approach making this better.
Your first visit
When we first evaluate someone with a DRA, we always make sure we get a complete history of the problems and challenges they are experiencing. This includes discussing any pregnancies/births (if applicable), their pelvic health (yep– bladder, bowel and sexual function), musculoskeletal challenges, medical problems, and their fitness preferences and routines. Then, we discuss their diastasis and what is bothersome to them. Is it primarily the appearance or the knowledge that it is there? Are they also struggling with back pain or pelvic organ prolapse or other problems? Does their diastasis limit their ability to exercise or lift their children? Our goal here is to really have a complete picture on the challenges they are facing.
Next, we move into an examination. This can include many different parts. As a diastasis is a pressure system problem, we want to look at everything that could impact the system. This could include:
Pelvic floor function (yep, sometimes people with DRA benefit significantly from a specific pelvic floor exam if they’re on board with it!)
Scar tissue mobility
Myofascial mobility at the abdomen and the back
Abdominal, hip, and pelvic motor control/strength
Each of these components can actually influence how much pressure is at the linea alba (between the two bellies of the rectus abdominis) and the control at the abdomen. If someone has decreased movement around their spine and ribcage, this can impact the fascia around the abdomen and contribute to widening at their midline. If they have less optimal breathing patterns, this could be funneling pressure where we don’t want it to go, instead of spreading the pressure out across the trunk and sharing the load.
Once we do a comprehensive evaluation, we develop a treatment plan to address the problems we found. This typically includes:
Improving global movement patterns
Improving breathing patterns (both in static postures and during movements/activities)
Restoring mobility and improving sensitivity at muscles and soft tissues (including scars)
Optimizing the pressure system
Retraining the abdominal wall
I want to talk a little bit more about how we can optimize the pressure system and retrain the abdominal wall.
Optimizing the pressure system
When improving DRA, it’s very important to keep the pressure system in mind. Pressure at the abdomen and pelvis depends on coordination of several muscles that work together in synergy. This includes the glottis, intercostal muscles, respiratory diaphragm, transverse abdominis, lumbar multifidis and the pelvic floor muscles. Mary Massery (who has contributed SO much to our understanding of these pieces) created an analogy of a soda pop can.
In this analogy, the glottal folds are at the top, the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom, and the respiratory diaphragm in the middle. The intercostals, lumbar multifidus, and transverse abdominis are around the can. So, basically, these structures together work together to keep pressure spread out, leading to a strong and functional core. In the soda pop can example, the thin aluminum is pressurized on all sides, leading to a strong can that is difficult to break (Of course, this changes if the can is open or has a hole in it!)
So, in the case of a diastasis rectus, the pressure system is often not working optimally. Basically, pressure in many cases is funneled toward the belly, instead of being spread to all the structures, and this can contribute to gapping, bulging and a loss of support.
So, from a treatment standpoint, our goal becomes to optimize this system. We get to play detective and find out which of these structures are working well, and which need some assistance to do their job optimally. Then, we retrain this system, focusing on the natural synergy that should be present. When this is done well, we help the body learn to spread the load, decrease the funneling of pressure to the belly (or elsewhere) and thus, we improve what the person is experiencing at their abdomen.
Retraining the abdominal wall
After we improve the pressure system, we need to retrain all of the muscles in the abdominal wall. This further helps to improve the pressure system, but it also can assist in stimulating the fascia in the abdomen. Often times, retraining the abdomen starts by building the pressure system base like we discussed up above. This base– the pelvic floor- diaphragm- transverse abdominis- lumbar multifidus- base– is the key to what else we need to do to improve function at the abdomen. The transverse abdominis is particularly important. This muscle helps to tension the linea alba, which improves force transfer through this structure.
Next, we use breathing and awareness of muscles to retrain these muscles in a variety of movements, postures, and exercises. This can start as a simple progression– learning to activate these muscles while breathing and lifting an arm, then lifting a leg– and progressing from there.
We also teach self-awareness of the abdomen. So, this helps you identify how you manage pressure in your abdomen, and this is very important in making sure you are challenging your system, while still being able to control pressure (and not allow the pressure to funnel in your belly and produce coning and doming). As we progress in exercises, we ultimately want to retrain this system within the rest of the muscles in the abdomen, and this is fun, because we can be very creative and often help people progress toward things they did not think would be possible for them. So, can someone struggling with a diastasis eventually do planks? sit-ups? Abdominal crunches? What about pilates? Yoga? Barre classes? Most of the time, we can work together to help you reach the goals you want to reach. I really believe there are not “bad” exercises, but the key thing is determining the readiness of the person to do the exercise well, and ensuring that they can modulate pressure while doing the movement.
So, if you’re struggling with your belly…
Know, that there is hope. There is so much we can do to help restore stability at the abdomen and improve the way you move and transfer force through your belly. Come and join our upcoming class (or get the on-demand recording if you’re reading this later!) If you’re struggling, there can really be so much value to being evaluated by a pelvic health provider in person. So reach out! And if you need help finding a pelvic PT, check out this prior blog post to help you!
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.
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.
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.
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.5Another 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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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!
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!
Wanna read more? Check out this prior post on connections between the diaphragm and the rest of the body!
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?
One of the most well-known tricks of the brain is an optical illusion. Do you see a bunny or a duck?
Which square is darker, A or B? (They’re actually the same color!)
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?!
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
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).
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:
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.