I often get asked why I chose to become a pelvic PT. Many people postulate that I have my own pelvic health challenges (I do…but those came later after 2 c-sections). Others assume I’ve always been super into the pelvis. But neither is really the case. The answer is quite a long one… but, honestly, it all came down to the patients.
Sometimes you have a moment in time that ends up defining the trajectory of your life (if you know, you know). And for me, this moment happen during a rotation in Shreveport, LA, while I was working on my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree through Duke University. I had an amazing clinical instructor (Darla Cathcart, who I now teach with through Herman & Wallace), and we were working with a patient who had been experiencing painful sex for as long as she had ever tried to have sex. I remember her talking with us during her initial evaluation, telling us about the relationships that had ended because of this, and tearfully explaining how she wanted this to not be a factor for her current relationship.
Fast forward, several visits later, she came in for her session, sat down, and started crying. She looked up and said, “I had sex, and it didn’t hurt.” I still get goosebumps as I right this. I got goosebumps in that moment. And, it was then and there that I KNEW that I had to help more people like her. I felt such clarity in my path. And I have never looked back.
Painful sex is extremely common. In fact, some studies show that it impacts around 20% of women. Yes, my friend, that is 1 in 5. However, women aren’t the only ones dealing with pain during or after sex. All people can deal with it– regardless of gender or anatomy. And, it really tends to be one of those things that just isn’t talked about. Nearly every time I post about painful sex on social media, I end up with private messages from people who have been dealing with pain for years, and just thought it was normal. Common does not mean normal. A little louder (for the people in the back):
Just because pain during sex is common, does NOT mean it is normal. Not if you:
Have had a baby
Have never had sex before
Have had sex a lot
Have been told you are small
Think your partner may be large
Have had problems with bladder or other infections
Have sensitive skin
While some of these factors may make someone more likely to have pain during sex (like if you had a baby and had a tear that took a while to heal), this still does not mean that pain is just something you have to deal with. Honestly, there are so many reasons why someone might have pain with sex. It could be related to:
Painful scar tissue
Orthopedic challenges (especially around the hip or low back)
Bowel dysfunction (hello constipation)
Conditions like endometriosis/adenomyosis, painful bladder syndrome/IC, or others.
Pelvic floor and abdominal muscle challenges
And many, many other things! And so so many different treatments to help! This can include finding the right moisturizers and lubricants for your body, additional medical interventions (medications, hormone creams, and more!) and working with a pelvic health specialist to help you optimize your pelvic floor muscles (through gentle manual therapy techniques, home exercises, lots of education, and a whole lot more!)
If you’ve been dealing with pain during sex, please know that you are not alone.
So so many other people deal with this too. And the great news is that enjoyable sex is possible for you. We can get there. There is treatment available. There are compassionate clinicians who care (if yours didn’t, pllleeeeasssseee go see a new one!). And we can work together to get you feeling better.
I have so much more to say about this!! But for now, I’m going to leave you with a few links for prior blogs with more information!
“I was just showering and reached down and suddenly noticed a bulge”
“I had no idea something was wrong until my doctor examined me and told me I have a stage 2 cystocele”
“I started feeling heaviness in my pelvis, then was wiping after I went to the bathroom, and noticed something was there!”
Pelvic organ prolapse impacts a lot of people. Some studies show that between 50-89% of people experience prolapse after vaginal birth (if they’re examined and someone is looking for it!), however, people can experience prolapse when they have never been through pregnancy or childbirth. Prolapse is one of the “scary diagnoses” as I tend to call them– not because I think it’s actually scary– I don’t– but because there is so much AWFUL information about prolapse out there. And when people suddenly learn about this, they dive deep into a rabbit hole of research, and often end up scared about what the future holds for them. BUT– I’m here today to tell you that: 1) Prolapse is actually very common and 2) there is so much you can do to help this problem!
To digress slightly– Working with people dealing with prolapse is a passion of mine, and I’m super excited to be teaching a LIVE class on managing pelvic organ prolapse with my friends and colleagues, Sara Reardon & Sarah Duvall. It’s going to be happening this Sunday at 4pm EST, and registration is limited! I hope you’ll join us for this awesome class! (Note: If you’re reading this after the event, and missed it– no worries! The recording will be available– just click the link above!)
What is Pelvic Organ Prolapse?
Before we jump into the myths surrounding prolapse, let’s talk about what it actually is. Pelvic organ prolapse refers to a loss of support around the bladder, uterus or rectum, and this causes descent one or more of these organs into the walls of the vagina. The organs themselves are supported by fascia, ligaments, connective tissues and… you guessed it! Muscles! So, how can loss of support occurs? Well, it could be due to straining of these tissues like would happen during pregnancy and childbirth, particularly if people have injuries during birth like stretch injuries to the nerves of the pelvis, tears in the connective tissue and fascia, or tears in the pelvic floor muscles themselves. This can also be due to chronic straining of the tissues that might occur with age, chronic lifting (with poor mechanics) or chronic coughing problems. Other factors like hormones, body size and joint hypermobility can also be involved.
What does prolapse feel like?
Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with prolapse, maybe you just think this is a problem you have, or maybe you know that you have this problem. Regardless, let’s chat about what prolapse can feel like. These are some of the things people who have prolapse can feel:
A bulge coming out of the vagina
Pressure in the pelvis or perineum
Lower back ache
Difficulty emptying the bladder
Difficulty emptying the bowels
Heaviness or a dragging feeling in the pelvis
Symptoms are often better first thing in the morning, then worsen as the day goes on (thanks so much gravity!). Symptoms vary person to person based on where they have prolapse and the severity of their prolapse.
So, now that we know what it is and what it can feel like, let’s jump into prolapse myths.
Common Myths Surrounding Pelvic Organ Prolapse
Myth #1: “You’ll likely need surgery at some point.”
I hear this one all the time. A well-intending physician tells their patient that they have prolapse, then follows it with, “we can fix that whenever you’re done having children” or something along those lines. While some people do end up needing surgery– particularly with more severe prolapse or if their prolapse is significantly impacting their function, many people are able to manage well conservatively with specific exercises or pessaries.
Myth #2: Prolapse is probably the cause of your pelvic pain, pain during sex, or genital pain.
So, you’ll see that I listed low back pain in the symptoms, but I didn’t list other types of pelvic pain. While I get that prolapse can look like it would be painful, it typically is not a painful condition. It’s an annoying condition, and can lead to behaviors that may cause pain (like constantly trying to grip your pelvic floor muscles to prevent things from falling down!). Prolapse can cause a back ache that worsens as the day goes on, and this is due to the ligaments around the organs stretching as the descent occurs. Additionally, the pressure/bulge can be uncomfortable, and people may feel like something is being pushed on during sex. That being said, we very often find that people have prolapse and something else going on when they are dealing with significant pain.
Myth #3: Because prolapse is structural, physical therapists likely won’t be able to help.
So first, support of the organs requires coordination of forces– ligaments and fascia are involved for sure, but muscles are also involved. All that aside, prolapse is a problem related to pressure management– so it matters what is happening at the pelvis, but also, what is happening outside of the pelvis that is impacting the pressure system.
Pressures within the intrathoracic and intraabdominal cavities can impact what is happening in the pelvis. Several muscles are involved in this pressure system, including the glottal folds at the top, the intercostal muscles, the respiratory diaphragm, the transverse abdominis muscle, the multifidus, and the pelvic floor muscles. These muscles work together in a coordinated way to help manage pressure and spread the load (so it is not funneled down to the pelvic floor).
Physical therapists help people with pelvic organ prolapse by helping them manage their pressure system as optimally as they can. This means looking at posture, spinal mobility, movement patterns, hip function, breathing habits, and so much more! It also means optimizing the function of the pelvic floor muscles. With this approach, we see good improvements. A Cochrane review of 13 studies in 2016 found that most people saw good improvements in their prolapse symptoms and their severity of prolapse on exam. A multicenter trial published in 2014 found that individualized pelvic floor training led to good improvement in symptoms and severity of prolapse.
Myth #4: Pessaries are for “old people”
Not true. Pessaries are amazing medical devices that help to support the walls of the vagina and can be very useful for reducing symptoms of prolapse. There are lots of different types of pessaries, and generally, people who wear them really find them to be helpful! In fact, this study found that 96% of the people who were appropriately fit with a pessary were satisfied and thought it helped with the severity of their symptoms.
Myth #5: If you have prolapse, you should never do certain exercises and movements so your problem doesn’t get worse.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again– there are no bad exercises– BUT there may be times when certain exercises may not be optimal for you. Ultimately, the best thing to do is to work with a professional who can watch you move, watch you exercise, and see how you modulate pressure during these movements. Then, they will be able to make recommendations specifically for you– help you modify where you need to modify, observe your form during movement, and then strategize with you to make a plan to get back to whatever movements you would like to get back to!
If you’re experiencing prolapse, or you think this might be you– there is hope available! I’m very excited to be working with Sara Reardon and our special guest, Sarah Duvall to jump further into this topic in our upcoming class this Sunday 10/25 at 4pmEST on Managing Pelvic Organ Prolapse. Come join us LIVE and get all of your questions answered! If you can’t make the live, no worries!! A recording will be available.
What prolapse questions do you have? Let me know in the comments!
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?
If you would have told me two weeks ago that I would have closed the doors to my clinic, Southern Pelvic Health, a week later, and shifted my practice to a virtual one, I would not have believed you. Maybe I was naive (yes, I probably was), but this change came quick to me. It almost happened overnight. And, here we are. I am moving into my second week of working with my patients online. While for many, that seems incredibly scary, I actually think that shifting to an online platform for a while is going to do a lot of good.
Last week, I worked with a few other colleagues to host a webinar on bringing pelvic health online– basically, how do pelvic floor PTs treat most effectively without actually touching their patients? It was a quick production–one built out of necessity–and it sold out in 24 hours because rehab professionals everywhere are trying to figure out how we can still be there for our patients and help them get better during this time. (For my colleagues out there, if you missed it, it’s still available as an on-demand purchase!) I brought together 5 experts from various corners of the country and the world, and we spoke for nearly 2 hours about how we assess the pelvic floor, evaluate patients, and actually help patients get better in a virtual setting. It was full of creative ideas, and also challenged some of the current practice patterns. As you know, I work hard to always question my own practice–learn more–do better– and I’m excited to see what this next period of time does for me as I learn to better and more effectively treat my patients, to be creative with self-care treatments and home strategies, and to use movement to help patients move when my hands are unable to. I will share what I learn with you here, of course.
Pelvic PTs are not the only professionals taking their skills online! Last week, my daughter and I joined a “Frozen Sing-A-long” through a local princess parties company. I have been thrilled to see some incredible resources for people with pelvic floor dysfunction hop online, and I am excited to share some of those with you today!
So, what can you join virtually this week?
Yoga for Pelvic Health
My dear friend and colleague, Patty Schmidt with PLS Yoga, is incredible and specializes in therapeutic yoga for pelvic floor dysfunction. She is bringing several awesome classes online! AND, they are cheap– $15 per class (which honestly, is a HUGE value for the expertise she brings!) So, I do hope you’ll join in:
Gentle Yoga (Via Vista Yoga)– this really could be great for anyone with persistent pain, I think!: Tuesday, March 24th at 12p.m., Thursday, March 26th at 10 a.m.
Patty also is teaching private sessions virtually at $30 for a 30-minute session. This is a steal, believe me!
I also need to share with you all of the FREE yoga resources through another friend and colleague, Shelly Prosko. Shelly has this incredible library of Yoga options for pelvic health, all available right here.
I hope you are able to partake of these awesome resources. Remember, we are in this together my friends! I’ll leave you with a quote from a much-loved movie in my house, Frozen II, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” Let’s all try to do the next right thing amidst this craziness!
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can be an incredibly life-impacting condition, affecting around 10-20% of the population (80% of those individuals being female!). The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but it is thought to likely be multifactorial.
IBS is characterized by abdominal pain paired with constipation and/or diarrhea. When many people hear about IBS, they may not automatically think that working with a physical therapist could be useful; however, there is so much that physical therapists can do to help improve symptoms related to IBS. Here are a few!
1.) Assist the client in developing optimal bowel habits.
We’ve discussed in detail several times how our habits can be extremely connected to our bowel function. This is also very true for individuals dealing with IBS–whether struggling with constipation, diarrhea or both! Training bowel habits includes developing a consistent bowel routine, optimizing dietary habits, and even toilet positioning/defecation strategies. These factors basically aim to help make sure your habits are working for you instead of against you. Sometimes these components require a more multidisciplinary team. This can include working with your GI physician, pelvic PT, as well as a dietician, functional medicine provider, and other specialties.
2.) Global downtraining and stress management.
Did you know you have an extensive neural network throughout your GI system? This network has been termed “the second brain” due to its ability to function even when cut off from the rest of the system. It’s also often called “the emotional brain of the body,” which makes sense when we think about how often we feel our emotions in our gut (i.e. “butterflies in your stomach” or “my gut reaction”) All is this means that our GI function can often be influenced by our stress, emotional regulation, and general psychological well being.
Qin et al. (2014) stated, “More and more clinical and experimental evidence showed that IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain.” They went on to add that psychological stress can impact intestinal mobility, motility, secretions and permeability. They concluded that, “IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder, therefore, the treatment of IBS should focus on managing stress and stress-induced responses.”
Pelvic PTs utilize strategies promoting downtraining and neuromuscular relaxation to help calm the nervous system and promote a more parasympathetic dominant state. This can be done through movement, relaxation strategies, mindfulness/meditation, and many other techniques. Want to get started on mindfulness now? Check out this prior post on Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain.
3.) Specific exercises aimed at promoting better movement.
This may not seem connected at first, but the reality is that when people aren’t feeling well or when someone is struggling with constipation/diarrhea, people tend to move less. This can often impact bowel function as regular exercise tends to stimulate more regular bowel movements. This 2019 review of 14 studies involving exercise interventions aimed at improving IBS symptoms found that exercise does seem to have a role in helping bowel function (Note: many of these studies were not so great, and found to have a high risk of bias, so more studies are definitely needed!)
Schuman et al. (2016) performed a review of 6 randomized-controlled trials looking at the role of yoga in helping people with IBS. I’ll be honest, I absolutely love yoga and find the pairing of breathing, mindfulness and movement to be so beneficial to myself and my patients. So, I was not surprised to see this review showing that the groups participating in yoga had decreased bowel symptoms, IBS severity and anxiety.
Additionally, it is common for someone with chronic constipation and/or diarrhea to have restrictions in the movement of their hips and spine. Restoring this movement through specific exercise can facilitate better function of the muscles around the pelvis, including those involved directly in bowel function.
4.) Treat the myofascial components of the problem.
We have discussed the viscerosomatic and somatovisceral reflexes in the past. Basically, when a person has an organ problem (in this case, IBS), we often will find that the myofascial tissues around the organ can become restricted and sensitive. This can be interconnected where myofascial dysfunction can worsen a visceral problem and a visceral problem worsens myofascial dysfunction. Thus, addressing both sides of the problem can often be very optimal. From a musculoskeletal standpoint, this means identifying structures around the abdomen and pelvis which may be sensitive or not moving as optimally. This can often include the abdominal wall, hip muscles, thigh muscles, buttocks muscles and the muscles around the low and mid back.
5.) Treat underlying or co-existing pelvic floor problems.
Prott et al. (2010) found that there were relationships between pelvic floor symptoms andanorectal function in individuals with IBS. Dysfunction of the muscles of the pelvic floor can present as weakness, which can lead to either difficulty holding back stool or poor support around the rectum. It can also include overactivity and poor relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles. This can contribute to pain, but also can influence how well the muscles can open for defecation , or hold back when they need to. Additionally, people can experience difficulties with coordination of the pelvic floor– basically, when the muscles do not contract or relax when they should. Dyssynergic defecation occurs when the pelvic floor muscles contract instead of relax when a person has a bowel movement. This can be a significant problem for those struggling with constipation. I wrote a whole article on that, and you can find it here. Sphinctor dyssynergia can occur in individuals with IBS as well as other types of constipation, and can be treated with pelvic PT (lots of treatment options, including SEMG biofeedback which has been found to be helpful for people with and without IBS).
IBS can be so impacting to a person’s life, and you don’t have to suffer alone! I encourage you to build your multidisciplinary team and start getting the help you need to get the most out of life!
What strategies have you found most helpful in dealing with IBS? As always, I’d love to hear from you!
3 years ago, I wrote a post on dyssynergic defecation that over time has become the most viewed post I have ever written. Y’all, people are struggling with pooping. Bowel health is something we all tend to take for granted until it stops working right. So, what is dyssynergia? Basically, dyssynergia refers to a state where your muscles are working against you when you have a bowel movement. Instead of the muscles coordinating well to open and relax to allow the stool to come out, the muscles will contract and fight against the stool coming out. This is a big problem for people struggling with constipation. In fact, this review suggested that around 40% of people with constipation have this problem.
How do you properly poop?
“Why aren’t we ever taught these things?!” I hear this all the time from patients after we discuss the often basic techniques to improve bowel and bladder health. In reality, these habits should be learned and passed down through families, but the reality, more often than not, is that that majority of people do not learn proper habits until problems start happening. So, let’s get started, and get to healthy pooping.
Step 1: Use Optimal Pooping Posture & Positioning
Yes, how you sit on the toilet really does matter. The optimal toilet positioning is one that will allow the muscles around the rectum to relax. This helps to open the angle between the rectum and the anus, and will allow stool to pass more easily. Our friends at Squatty Potty have made major $$$ on this concept with their handy stool. They do have some great videos, and this one listed here gives a nice overview on why a squatted position is more optimal for defecation.
Now, as an aside, should everyone sit with their knees elevated that high on the toilet? That’s going to be a big NO. The optimal position for you may not be the optimal position for the person next to you. The key here is that you need to be as comfortable as possible while sitting on your throne. If your hips hurt, or your back feels tight, etc. when you are squatted like this, change the angle until you find the best position for you.
Step 2: Take Your Time
We all know those people who grab a book and head to the bathroom, only to be seen 30+ minutes later, right? Well, they actually do have the right thought process. Many people get into a pattern of sitting on the toilet and immediately straining and pushing to empty their bowels. This is not often necessary, and actually overrides the normal processes of your colon and rectum. The best habit is actually to 1) Head to the bathroom as soon as you can when you feel the urge to have a BM and 2) Sit and relax on the toilet, giving your body at least 5 minutes to get things moving on its own. If you do need to push or help the body in the process, move on to the next step.
Step 3: If You Need to Push, Push Properly.
Is it ok to sometimes need to push a little to get the poop out? Absolutely! Our bodies are made to be able to do this when needed to assist in getting the stool out. Did you know your GI system actually has several reflexes that aid in pooping? The intrinsic defecation reflex is a reflex that is stimulated when stool enters the rectum. This reflex will trigger the sequence of events that leads to defecation. When this reflex is suppressed (via another reflex, the Recto-anal inhibitory reflex), the colon will be helping you less in getting the stool out. This means that you may need to do a little pushing to assist in the process. So, how do you push?
Proper pushing requires a few things 1) abdominal muscle activation 2) pelvic floor muscle relaxation and 3) breathing. So, if you are holding your breath when you push, that is NOT proper pushing. Before we get started, it can be helpful to test yourself and see what your current habits are. To do this, place your hands on your belly while you sit on the toilet. Perform a fake “push” and see what happens. Did you hold your breath? Did your belly push out into your hands or pull in away from the hands? What did you feel happen at your pelvic floor?
So, now, let’s talk about how to push properly. First, be sure you are in your optimal toileting position. Now, place your hands on your belly and relax your belly forward. Do you feel how relaxing your abdominal wall allows your pelvic floor muscles to also relax? Interestingly enough, the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominis muscles have a neurological relationship. Thus, for the majority of people, these muscles contract together. So, since the transverse abdominis muscle will pull the belly in (leading to pelvic floor muscle contraction), we want to do the opposite–> keep the belly out. Next, with your “belly big,” take a deep slow breath in. Then, as you blow out, think about blowing into your belly, gently tightening the muscles of your abdomen without allowing the belly to draw in. We call this “belly hard.” Lastly, as you are doing this breathing, think about relaxing, lengthening and opening your pelvic floor as you gently bear down (“pelvic floor drop”). So, in summary, this is what we are aiming for:
Belly Big— relax the belly forward and take a breath in.
Belly Hard— As you exhale, push into the belly, tensing the abdominal muscles, but not shortening them!
Pelvic Floor Drop— while you are exhaling, gently bear down, allowing your pelvic floor to open and relax
(Note- several amazing clinicians have developed these concepts and verbiage that best connects with people. Pauline Chiarelli has a great book called Let’s Get Things Moving: Overcoming Constipation, and she discusses this in detail there. “Belly Big, Belly Hard, Pelvic Floor Drop” is a phrase we teach in our H&W Curriculum, and I believe it is also a phrase used by Dawn Sandalcidi, an excellent pelvic PT and faculty member out in Denver, CO.)
Who knew pooping was so complicated?
Please let me know if you have any questions! If you’re a pelvic PT, I would love to hear from you–especially if you have other strategies you like to use to help people learn how to poop! Let me know in the comments!
In continuing my video series with clinical experts, I interviewed Susan Clinton, PT, DscPT, OCS, WCS, COMT, FAAOMPT (Yes, those are a TON of initials!!) regarding balloon training as a treatment for bowel dysfunction. Susan is well-known in our profession as an expert on bowel dysfunction, and her video definitely did not disappoint!
Curious about this treatment? Check out the interview below! If you want to learn more, here are a few research articles that mention balloon training as a treatment tool (this one and this one) Hope you enjoy!
This past weekend, I had the wonderful experience of assisting at Herman & Wallace’s Level 1 Pelvic Floor Course, held here in Atlanta. I have been assisting at these courses for the past 4 years now, and I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better than helping clinicians who are new to the field of pelvic health learn and grow in this fantastic specialty. I love the excitement, the slight fear (I mean, many of these folks are doing their first vaginal exams at these courses), and the growing passion for helping men and women with pelvic floor problems. And the most exciting thing is knowing that they are going out in their communities to begin offering this service to people who really need it. And, now you know how much that really means to me.
The initial level 1 course covers an introduction to pelvic floor dysfunction (all diagnoses), and covers bladder dysfunction in more detail. One of the prerequisites of the course is for all participants to complete a bladder diary which is then evaluated in the class. So, why keep a bladder or bowel diary?
First, let’s be honest, we are all horrible historians. Many of us can barely remember what we ate for breakfast, let alone remember all the details of our bathroom habits! Let me ask you this:
How many times did you urinate yesterday?
How much fluid did you drink? What exactly did you drink?
What did your poop look like? When did you poop?
If you’re like me, it’s probably tricky to recall these exact details. (Well, you may be slightly better at recalling than I am, now that my pregnancy brain is in full effect!). And, if you are having any problems with your bowels or bladder, these details really do matter. Here are a few examples:
Patient #1: Mary (obviously not her name) was a lovely 65 year old retired nurse experiencing urinary leakage on her way to the restroom several times each day. She had tried exercises, dietary changes, and medications, and her problem kept persisting. Her bladder diary was eye opening for both of us! We learned that she only leaked urine when she would hold her bladder for over 6 hours! After years of holding her bladder for entire shifts, she got into some pretty bad habits. Once we changed this, her leakage went away completely!
Patient #2: Sara(also, not her name) was a 10 year old girl having bowel accidents daily. Once we did a diary, we found out the problem! Her mother was a hair stylist who saw clients out of her home. Sara was afraid to have a bowel movement while her mom’s clients were there, and had started having accidents from getting too constipated! The three of us quickly determined a “code word” for Sara to tell her mom when she needed to go, and within 2 weeks, the problem was solved!
So, as you can see… these little diaries can be oh so powerful! So, let’s get into the details!
Who should do a bowel or bladder diary? Well, in my mind, everyone should try it at some point! It’s so cool to see what your patterns really are… but for sure, anyone who is having problems like urinary urgency or frequency, urinary leakage, constipation or bowel leakage.
How long should you keep one? Typically, I like people to track for at least 3 days. Preferably, two of those days should be “regular” and one can be “different.” For example, if you are working, you may choose two days to be work days, and one to be over the weekend.
What should you look for? The best thing to do if you are having problems is to bring your diary to your health care provider. He or she will be able to analyze it completely, and give you insight into what may be happening. However, I do think there is some benefit in doing a little sleuthing yourself. Here are a few things to identify:
How often are you going? Normal bladder frequency is typically around 5-8 times each day, and less than 1 time each night. Normal bowel frequency varies quite a bit from 1 time over 3 days to 3 times each day.
How strong are your urges when you go? Generally, I recommend grading urges on a 0-3 scale (from no urge –> gotta go right now!). Were most of your urges very small? Were you running to the bathroom all day?
How much did you urinate? The best way to track this is to actually measure your output (usually a cheap plastic cup or a dollar tree measuring cup works well). Normal output of urine is 400-600 mL per void. You can also try just counting the seconds of your stream, however, this does tend to be less accurate. We generally tell people that each stream should be at least 8 seconds.
What did your poop look like? Was your stool soft and formed? Little rabbit pellets? Did you have to push hard to empty your bowels or did they come out easily? Did you have any discomfort or pain?
What was your diet like? Do you notice any trends in what you eat or drink? Were you drinking some well-known bladder offenders (like caffeinated drinks, soda, coffee, artificial sweeteners or sugary drinks)? Did you eat at really regular intervals? (You know I love my bowel routines!)
Did you notice any trends? Did you always go to the bathroom when you had the littlest urge? Was most of your leaking with coughing or sneezing? Does running water send you running to the bathroom? Did you always have a bowel movement after your morning coffee?
As you can see, so much wonderful information can be gleaned from these diaries, so if you’re having problems, get started today! Knowledge is power, and once we become aware and identify trends in our habits, we can make the changes needed to really help us get the most out of our bodies!
So, get tracking! And, on a serious note– don’t forget that these diaries can also help to determine if you are having a more serious problem, so please, please please, see your health care provider for an evaluation if you are having the types of problems we discussed today!
If you didn’t know, December 1st was a day that all PTs came together to share with the public all of the benefits of seeking PT! My colleague, Stephanie Prendergast, founder of the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in California, wrote an amazing blog post on why someone should get pelvic PT first. I thought it was great (as you know…I post lots of Stephanie’s stuff), and Stephanie gave me permission to re-blog it here. So, I really hope you enjoy it. If you aren’t familiar with Stephanie’s blog, please check it out here. You won’t regret it.
On another note, I will be teaching a live webinar Thursday 12/10 on Pelvic Floor Dysfunction in the Adult Athlete. I really hope to see some blog followers there! Register for it here.
Now… enjoy this great post by Stephanie. ~ Jessica
Why get PT 1st? Here are the Facts. By Stephanie Prendergast
Vaginal pain. Burning with urination. Post-ejaculatory pain. Constipation. Genital pain following bowel movements. Pelvic pain that prevents sitting, exercising, wearing pants and having pleasurable intercourse.
When a person develops these symptoms, physical therapy is not the first avenue of treatment they turn to for help. In fact, physical therapists are not even considered at all. This week, we’ll discuss why this old way of thinking needs to CHANGE. Additionally, we’ll explain how the “Get PT 1st” campaign is leading the way in this movement.
We’ve heard it before. You didn’t know we existed, right? Throughout the years, patients continue to inform me the reason they never sought a physical therapist for treatment first, was because they were unaware pelvic physical therapists existed, and are actually qualified to help them.
Many individuals do not realize that physical therapists hold advanced degrees in musculoskeletal and neurologic health, and are treating a wide range of disorders beyond the commonly thought of sports or surgical rehabilitation.
On December 1st, physical therapists came together on social media to raise awareness about our profession and how we serve the community. The campaign is titled “GetPT1st”. The team at PHRC supports this campaign and this week we will tell you that you can and should get PT first if you are suffering from a pelvic floor disorder.
Did you know that a majority of people with pelvic pain have “tight” pelvic floor muscles that are associated with their symptoms?
Physical therapy is first-line treatment that can help women eliminate vulvar pain
Chronic vulvar pain affects approximately 8% of the female population under 40 years old in the USA, with prevalence increasing to 18% across the lifespan. (Ruby H. N. Nguyen, Rachael M. Turner, Jared Sieling, David A. Williams, James S. Hodges, Bernard L. Harlow, Feasibility of Collecting Vulvar Pain Variability and its Correlates Using Prospective Collection with Smartphones 2014)
Physical therapy is first-line treatment that can help men and women with Interstitial Cystitis
Over 1 million people are affected by IC in the United States alone [Hanno, 2002;Jones and Nyberg, 1997], in fact; an office survey indicated that 575 in every 100,000 women have IC [Rosenberg and Hazzard, 2005]. Another study on self-reported adult IC cases in an urban community estimated its prevalence to be approximately 4% [Ibrahim et al. 2007]. Children and adolescents can also have IC [Shear and Mayer, 2006]; patients with IC have had 10 times higher prevalence of bladder problems as children than the general population [Hanno, 2007].
Physical Therapy is first-line treatment that can help men suffering from Chronic Nonbacterial Prostatitis/Male Pelvic Pain
Chronic prostatitis (CP) or chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CPPS) affects 2%-14% of the male population, and chronic prostatitis is the most common urologic diagnosis in men aged <50 years.
The definition of CP/CPPS states urinary symptoms are present in the absence of a prostate infection. (Pontari et al. New developments in the diagnosis and treatment of CP/CPPS. Current Opinion, November 2013).
71% of women in a survey of 205 educated postpartum women were unaware of the impact of pregnancy on the pelvic floor muscles.
21% of nulliparous women in a 269 women study presented with Levator Ani avulsion following a vaginal delivery (Deft. relationship between postpartum levator ani muscle avulsion and signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction. BJOG 2014 Feb 121: 1164 -1172).
64.3% of women reported sexual dysfunction in the first year following childbirth. (Khajehi M. Prevalence and risk factors of sexual dysfunction in postpartum Australian women. J Sex Med 2015 June; 12(6):1415-26.
24% of postpartum women still experienced pain with intercourse at 18 months postpartum (McDonald et al. Dyspareunia and childbirth: a prospective cohort study. BJOG 2015)
85% of women stated that given verbal instruction alone did not help them to properly perform a Kegel. *Dunbar A. understanding vaginal childbirth: what do women understand about the consequences of vaginal childbirth.J Wo Health PT 2011 May/August 35 (2) 51 – 56)
Did you know that pelvic floor physical therapy is mandatory for postpartum women in many other countries such as France, Australia, and England? This is because pelvic floor physical therapy can help prepartum women prepare for birth and postpartum moms restore their musculoskeletal health, eliminate incontinence, prevent pelvic organ prolapse, and return to pain-free sex.
Did you know that weak or ‘low tone’ pelvic floor muscles are associated with urinary and fecal incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and pelvic organ prolapse?
Physical Therapy can help with Stress Urinary Incontinence
Did you know that weak or ‘low tone’ pelvic floor muscles are associated with urinary and fecal incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and pelvic organ prolapse? 80% of women by the age of 50 experience Stress Urinary Incontinence. Pelvic floor muscle training was associated with a cure of stress urinary incontinence. (Dumoulin C et al. Neurourol Urodyn. Nov 2014)
30 – 85 % of men develop stress urinary incontinence following a radical prostatectomy. Early pelvic floor muscle training hastened the recovery of continence and reduced the severity at 1, 3 and 6 months postoperatively. (Ribeiro LH et al. J Urol. Sept 2014; 184 (3):1034 -9).
Physical Therapy can help with Erectile Dysfunction
Several studies have looked at the prevalence of ED. At age 40, approximately 40% of men are affected. The rate increases to nearly 70% in men aged 70 years. The prevalence of complete ED increases from 5% to 15% as age increases from 40 to 70 years.1
Physical Therapy can help with Pelvic Organ Prolapse
In the 16,616 women with a uterus, the rate of uterine prolapse was 14.2%; the rate of cystocele was 34.3%; and the rate of rectocele was 18.6%. For the 10,727 women who had undergone a hysterectomy, the prevalence of cystocele was 32.9% and of rectocele was 18.3%. (Susan L. Hendrix, DO,Pelvic organ prolapse in the Women’s Health Initiative: Gravity and gravidity. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2002;186:1160-6.)
Pelvic floor physical therapy can help optimize musculoskeletal health, reducing the symptoms of prolapse, help prepare the body for surgery if necessary, and speed post-operative recovery.
Stephanie grew up in South Jersey, and currently sees patients at Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in their Los Angeles office. She received her bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology from Rutgers University, and her master’s in physical therapy at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. For balance, Steph turns to yoga, music, and her calm and loving King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Abbie. For adventure, she gets her fix from scuba diving and global travel.
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.