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
A few weeks ago, I connected with Noa Fleischaker, the founder of Tight Lipped. This organization started as a podcast in 2019, and has grown to reach over 3000 people from 58 countries around the world. Tight Lipped is all about supporting people who have been struggling with vulvovaginal pain conditions– problems like vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, pelvic pain, painful sex, and more. They share stories to build community, normalize often very private problems, and advocate for better care. They recently published their first Zine, “Opening Up,” and it is a beautiful compilation of art and stories from people who have dealt with vulvovaginal pain conditions. I received my copy last week, and it is in our waiting room as I type this!
I hope you enjoy this interview and connect with Noa’s message! If you would like to support the work of Tight Lipped, please visit their website! They also have events, meet-ups (with one coming up this week!!), workshops, and book clubs! So check it out and connect with this amazing group!
Yesterday afternoon, I met my team of pelvic PTs at at the office for some photo and video time. Our model? Dr. Kellie, who is about to have her last week with us in the clinic before leaving on maternity leave for her second daughter. You see, working at a pelvic PT practice, we have to take advantage of one of our own being pregnant! How could we miss an opportunity to record videos and take pictures to expand our library! 🙂
Movement during pregnancy is incredibly useful. First, it can help with many of the aches and pains that commonly develop. It helps to keep your muscles active, and ultimately, can help prepare you for the process of labor and birth. We wrote a while back on healthy exercise during pregnancy, so start there if you want to know where you should get started for movement.
Today, I wanted to focus on movement to help you feel better. These exercises promote gentle movement around your spine and pelvis and activation of the muscles around your deep core.
Goal: Improve mobility around your spine and pelvis. Coordinate movement with breathing.
Inhale slowly, and as you do, gently let your tailbone out, and lift your head
Try not to allow your back to dip super far down but stay within a comfortable range.
2. Exhale and gently tuck your head, lifting your belly up and rounding your spine, allowing your tailbone to tuck.
3. Repeat this flowing gently with your breath as you inhale and exhale
Aim to do this 10-15 times in a row, alternating with the modified child’s pose that is described below.
Modified Child’s Pose
Goal: Lengthen lower back, gluteal muscles, pelvic floor, and inner thighs. Encourages relaxation and opening around the pelvis.
This exercise works really nice to alternate between sets of the Cat-Cow.
First, place pillows in front of you, leaving a gap for your belly. You can use 1-3 pillows, depending on your belly size.
Sit back on your heels, and open your knees to a comfortable width.
Lean over the pillow, allowing your body to relax and reaching your arms forward. Let your head rest to one side or the other.
Relax in this position for 1-2 minutes.
Ball Pelvic Mobility
Goal: Improve the movement around your pelvis and spine
Sit comfortably on an exercise ball with your feet supported on the floor
Inhale, letting your pelvis out, allowing a small arch in your back
Exhale, tucking your pelvis under gently pulling your belly in.
Repeat this to warm-up x 10
Then, add a rotation, inhaling and rotating clockwise with your pelvis until you reach the arched back position. Then exhale, continuing to rotate clockwise until you reach the tucked position.
Repeat this x 5-10 repetitions, then switch to counter-clockwise.
Goal: Activate your deep abdominals and pelvic floor muscles paired with your breath.
Begin in a hands and knees position with your spine in a neutral position (not flexed or arched)
Inhale to prepare, exhale and gently engage your pelvic floor muscles while gently drawing in your belly. Aim for a slight contraction (not hard!).
While you do this, extend one arm in front of you.
Exhale, lowering your arm and relaxing your muscles.
Repeat, alternating lifting with your opposite arm. Be sure to keep your spine in a comfortable position while you are doing this exercise. Repeat this movement for 10-15 repetitions.
To progress this exercise, you can also perform with an alternating leg movement, aiming to keep your spine in a neutral position.
Goal: Coordinate movement with breath, activate pelvic floor with gluteal muscles
Place a ball behind your back and lean against a wall. Keep your feet placed out in front of you, flat on the floor.
Inhale while you bend your knees and lower.
Exhale, engage your pelvic floor muscles slightly, and lift up to standing.
Repeat this exercise for 10-15 repetitions, performing 2-3 sets.
Note: While doing this, keep your feet far enough in front of you that your knees don’t cross your feet.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these exercises! What exercises do you like to do to move well during pregnancy? Any favorites we need to add?
Look for more coming from us on all of this in the future!
“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!
May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month, so I thought it was only fitting to write something about pelvic pain before the month is over. Pelvic pain impacts so many people, in fact, the International Pelvic Pain Society estimates that over 25 million women suffer from chronic pelvic pain. While the number is generally lower in men, some studies estimate that around 1 in 10 men experience chronic pelvic pain (often termed chronic prostatitis).
Next week, my clinic is officially re-opening our doors for in-person sessions, after operating completely virtually for the past 2.5 months! During this time, I tried to stay as connected to our patients as I could, and sent out a newsletter each week full of pelvic health tidbits. One of the new things I created was a daily movement sequence for pelvic pain, and I wanted to share it with all of you here!
Before we get started, you should know a few things about pelvic pain. First, each person with pelvic pain is a unique entity. So, while this sequence can feel lovely for many people with pelvic pain, some may not be quite ready for it. For others, they may find that doing it actually increases their pain (clearly, not our goal). For rehabilitation for a person with pelvic pain, it is very important that exercises, movements and activities are done at a threshold that does not increase or aggravate pain or discomfort. This is, as we have spoken about very often, because we want to create positive movement neurotags for the brain. Basically, we don’t want your brain to think that movement is bad or dangerous (because as we all know, it should not be bad or dangerous!). If we do movements that increase our discomfort and make us feel worse, the brain can build a connection between moving that way and bad/pain feelings. Instead, we like to move at a threshold where the body does not guard or protect by pain. So, why am I telling you this? Because, if you start doing these movements and your symptoms worsen, or it doesn’t feel therapeutic to you, you need to stop doing it and see a pelvic floor therapist who can evaluate you comprehensively and help you develop a specific movement plan that IS therapeutic to YOU. And lastly, remember that anything on this blog is not in any way a replacement of in-person care. You need to consult with your interdisciplinary team (your physician, PT, etc!) to determine the best approach for your health! (And if you’re not sure, schedule a virtual consult with a member of my team to help figure out where to go next!)
Daily Movement Sequence for Pelvic Pain
So, let’s break down this sequence.
If I could give any person with pelvic floor problems a single exercise to do, it would be this. The breath is SO powerful, and sync’d with the pelvic floor. For diaphragmatic breathing, you want your breath to move into your belly, expand your ribcage in all directions, then lift your chest. A misconception of diaphragmatic breathing is that the chest should not move at all, and this is FALSE. The chest should lift–but–so should the ribcage and the abdomen. You can do this in sitting or lying down. As you inhale, aim to lengthen and relax your pelvic floor muscles, then exhale, allowing your muscles to return to baseline. Start your sequence with 2-5 minutes of this breathing. (and toss in some focused relaxation of each part of your body while you’re doing it!)
Happy Baby or “the Frog”
This one is a key movement for anyone with pelvic pain! To perform this, lie on your back and bring your knees up to your chest. Reach your arms through your legs to grab your lower shins, support your legs using your arms, and allow your knees to drop open. You can alternatively hold your legs at your thighs, depending on your comfort and your hip mobility. From here, aim to let go of muscle tension. Then, take slow breaths, directing your breath to lengthen and open your pelvic floor muscles. This is a great position for relaxation and lengthening of the pelvic floor!
This is a nice movement to warm up your spine and practice using small amounts of tension to perform a graded movement (you know I love my slow movements!) For this exercise, you will lie on your back with your knees bent. Then inhale in to prepare, exhale and slowly begin to roll up off the mat, lifting your tailbone, then sacrum, then low back, then mid back, then shoulder area. At the end of your exhale, slowly inhale, reversing the movement. You can repeat this 5-15 times, and do 1-3 sets. (Vary this based on what feels healthy and helpful to you!). Sometimes people get back pain when they do this (usually their back muscles are trying to do the job of the glutes). So, if this happens, try to bring your feet closer to your buttocks, and press through your feet while you are lifting. If it still happens, stop the exercise, and talk to your physical therapist.
Reach and Roll
I love this exercise for improving mobility of the upper back (thoracic spine). For this exercise, lie on your side with your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees, arms stacked in front of you at shoulder level. Inhale, reaching your top arm forward, exhale, and slowly roll your hand across your chest, opening to the opposite side. Keep your hips stacked so you don’t rotate through your low back. Pause here and inhale in, letting your ribcage expand, then exhale letting the hand glide across your chest to meet the opposite hand again. Repeat this movement 5-10 times on each side (You can do a few sets if you would like!)
So, this is another one of my top exercises. I love the cat-cow as it promotes segmental mobility of the lumbar and thoracic spine into flexion and extension. It is another great movement to encourage minimal tension, and coordination of breath, so it’s a big favorite for people with pelvic pain. To do this, get into a quadruped position (hands and knees, with hands aligned under shoulder and knees aligned under hips) Inhale, allowing your tailbone to come up and your back to dip down, head looking up. Exhale, dropping your head down, rolling your back up and tucking your tailbone. Perform this movements slowly, using small amounts of tension. Repeat this 10-15 times, 2 sets. You can alternate each set with child’s pose, listed below.
Child’s Pose (Wide-Kneed)
Child’s pose is a beautiful exercise that also encourages opening and lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. It is nicely performed between sets of Cat-Cow. I like to modify this slightly by bringing the knees into a wide position to further encourage relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles. To perform this, begin in the quadruped (hands/knees) position as above. Open the knees into a wider position, keeping your feet together. Drop your pelvis back toward your feet, reaching your arms forward and relaxing down toward the mat. You can use a pillow (or 2 pillows!) to support your trunk and decrease how deep your child’s pose goes. Hold this position (and make sure you are totally comfortable!) for 60-90 seconds, breathing in long, slow breaths, encouraging lengthening and opening of your pelvic floor. Repeat this 2 times, preferably, interspersed with the Cat-Cow exercise.
And there you have it. My daily sequence for people with pelvic pain to get some movement in!
There are so many other great exercises for people with pelvic pain! Do you have any favorites I didn’t include in this sequence? Any movement challenges you want help solving? Let me know!
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!
If you’ve been pregnant before, you know the feeling of going out and having everyone comment on your beautiful belly. Of course, we all get the occasional, “wow, are you sure you’re not having twins?” “When are you due? You’re not going to make it there!” (And can we collectively just tell those people to leave us alone!!) BUT, the majority of the comments are, “you look amazing!” “Wow, she is really growing!” “How are you feeling? Congratulations on your baby!” Honestly, my own body self confidence was at a high during pregnancy. But then, our sweet little love muffins are born. And society expects us to very quickly bounce back to our pre-baby state (and I have so many thoughts on that…because we just went through this transformative, incredible experience, that took nearly 10 months to build! And often times mamas are left alone to figure things out after birth).
As an aside, this was one of the BIG reasons that my friend and colleague, Sara Reardon, and I decided to partner together to create live & on-demand classes! We recognized that soooo many people are struggling with pelvic health problems. While individualized pelvic PT is so beneficial, it’s not always possible for people at the time they need it. For one…ummm…coronavirus/social distancing. But also, some people prefer trying to learn and work independently, may feel too nervous to discuss their problems with a provider, or may have a schedule/time constraints/financial constraints/geographical constraints that just don’t allow individualized care at the time they are wanting it. SO, these are our classes.We have 2 LIVE postpartum classes coming up– TOMORROW 4/14 is our “Postpartum Recovery After a Vaginal Birth” Class, and the following Wednesday 4/22 is our “Postpartum Recovery After a Cesarean Birth” Class (SO excited about this one as a mama of 2 Cesarean babies!). These classes are built for the consumer—BUT, if you are a health care provider, I can guarantee that you’ll learn a bunch also! We sold out before the start of our “Pelvic Floor Prep for Birth” class, so if you’re on the fence, register soon and reserve your spot!
Anyways…back to our topic at hand: Diastasis Rectus Abdominis.
The abdominal wall is stretched during pregnancy to accommodate the sweet growing munchkin, and in some cases (most cases, according to some research!), this leads to a stretching at a structure called the linea alba- the connection between the two sides of the rectus abdominis or “6-pack” muscle group. When this becomes larger than about 2 fingers in width, it is known as diastasis rectus abdominis (DRA). This is what it looks like:
The two “+” marks indicate each side of the lines alba, and you can see that it is wider than it likely was previously. Note, this is an ultrasound image of a 38 year old mom who had diastasis after her pregnancy. DRA is different than a hernia. When a hernia occurs, there is a defect that allows an organ or tissue to protrude through the muscle/tissue that normally contains it. So, someone could have a DRA and not a hernia. Or, they could have a DRA and a hernia. Make sense?
Diastasis rectus abdominis is common during and after pregnancy, and varies in severity. For some moms, they may not really realize it’s even there. Others may feel a complete lack of support at their belly, notice a bulge, or even worry that they still look pregnant. A recent study published in 2016 found that among 300 women who were pregnant and gave birth, 33.1% had a DRA at 21 weeks gestation. At 6 weeks postpartum, 60.0% had a DRA. This decreased to 45.4% at 6 months postpartum and 32.6% at 12 months postpartum. So, basically, many pregnant folk get this, and while for some it gradually improves over time, for others it can persist.
The link between DRA and musculoskeletal dysfunction is not confirmed. A recent systematic review published in 2019 found “weak evidence that DRAM presence may be associated with pelvic organ prolapse, and DRAM severity with impaired health-related quality of life, impaired abdominal muscle strength and low back pain severity.” This makes a lot of sense to me. Conditions like pelvic organ prolapse and low back pain are complicated, but in some cases do have components related to pressure management. The abdominal wall is very crucial in helping to modulate intraabdominal pressure, so it makes sense that when it is not functioning optimally, a person could struggle with managing pressure well.
The intra-abdominal pressure system involves coordination between the respiratory diaphragm, low back muscles, transverse abdominis, and pelvic floor muscles. These muscles need to work together to control pressures through to abdomen and pelvis and create dynamic postural stability. When the abdominal wall has a loss of support, this system can be impacted and contribute to pressure problems like prolapse and low back pain. However, those diagnoses are complicated. There are many other factors involved (like connective tissue support, amongst other things), so this is why a comprehensive examination is often very beneficial. This is also why not everyone who has DRA has pain.
I think it’s important to note here, that for some people, their DRA may not be contributing to things like back pain or prolapse, but it may still be a huge problem for them. People can feel guilty about caring about the cosmetic component involved in some instances of DRA…you know…the pooch. But, you know what– if this matters to you, then it matters! Feeling confident and strong is so important! So, don’t let anyone tell you what is or isn’t important for you to care about!
So, how do you find out if you have a diastasis?
The best thing to do if this is sounding like you is to see a pelvic PT to be evaluated comprehensively. There are many different things that can contribute to a loss of support at the abdomen, so looking at the complete picture is the best option. We’re going to talk about some of those pieces and how we as pelvic PTs evaluate DRA in Part 2 of this blog series. However, there are ways you can examine yourself and find out if you have a diastasis rectus. First, lie down on your back with your knees bent.
Start by placing two of your fingers at your belly button. Next, lift your head and your shoulders up (like doing an abdominal crunch) and sink your fingers in, gently moving them back and forth to feel the sides of your rectus abdominis. Notice if your fingers sink in, and if you feel a gap between your muscles. Repeat this a few inches above your belly button, and again a few inches below your belly button. Also notice how you feel as you do this– do you feel tension at your fingers? Do your muscles feel strong? When you lift up, are your fingers pushed out or do they sink in? What do you notice? (This is great information for you to understand how much force you can generate through your “gap” and will be important as we start discussing how we treat this!)
How can you help a diastasis?
Well, the good news is that there is so much we can do to help improve diastasis, make your belly stronger, and help you feel better. In part two of this series, we’ll discuss the ways pelvic PTs can best evaluate someone who has a diastasis, and the methodology we use to treat this problem. The method of treating this has changed over time, so I’m going to give you my best understanding of the research as it’s available today! Stay tuned to learn more!
Stay healthy during this time my friends– and wash your hands!
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!