Happy Smells, Memories, and Neurotags

A few weeks ago, my husband returned from spending a few days at Barnsley Gardens Resort, where he helped with a fundraising event for the Atlanta Area Boy Scouts of America. Upon his happy return (for all parties involved– single moms: you are rockstars!), he gifted me with a bottle of my favorite relaxing lotion, scented with lavender and peppermint. It is heavenly, and we both adore it! It has become a tradition that he brings me a bottle every time he helps with the event in November. Why do we both love it so much? Well, 3 years ago, we spent 2 wonderful nights at Barnsley Gardens for a mini babymoon. It was our last getaway as a family of two. I was super pregnant, but we ate delicious food, relaxed in the pool, went on evening walks, and slept in. We had an incredible couples massage also, and this lotion was the smell of the spa. We bought a bottle then, and even now, 3 years later, using the lotion evokes feeling of peacefulness, joy, love, and overall relaxation.

So, what happened there? How do brain-smell associations work? (And I know some of you are sitting there thinking…what does this have to do with the pelvis?)

We’ve all been there, right? When I hear the song “Kiss me” by Sixpence None the Richer, I’m transported back to the middle of the summer working as a lifeguard. I smell sunscreen and chlorine and feel the warmth of the sunshine. When I smell a certain blend of middle eastern herbal tea, I’m transported back to Cairo, Egypt where I studied abroad in college, walking through the busy streets at the downtown market. Our brains are incredible like that. Certain memories impact us, and cause our brains to form neurotags– specific patterns of neural activation based on that single input. This is why all of the pieces of the memory come flooding back to you when you have the evoked stimulus (in my case recently, amazing lavender mint lotion).

Now let’s jump into pelvic health, and particularly, chronic pain. What if the brain forms neurotags about pain? For example, what if a person began having pain with sitting, and let’s say, for this example, they experienced a few situations where they needed to sit for a long period of time, and the pain was just awful. As we have discussed many many times, we know that all pain is produced by the brain, that the brain can play tricks on us, and that the brain does change over time due to pain and many other factors. The brain could then, build a neurotag about sitting. Basically, when the person in the above example goes to sit, the brain will activate the neural pathways to remember pain, negativity, perhaps anxiety/stress about the situation, etc. and instead of amplifying the feelings of peace and love (like my lotion!), the brain will amplify the feelings of distress and pain. What about a painful medical examination? A negative sexual experience?

Fascinating, right? So, what can we do about it? 

First, recognize a negative neurotag for what it is– your brain recognizing familiarity. And what it is not– a true interpretation of the current situation.

Next, change up the pattern to trick your brain. If you have pain when bending forward to pick something up, can you try the bending motion while lying down (ie pulling your knees up to your chest)? If you had a negative medical exam and start feeling anxious about your appointment, could you see a different provider at a different office? Perhaps request a different position for the exam?  If you have pain with sex, could you alter the experience? Maybe this means a different position, different location, different warm-up?

After that, aim to build new, positive neurotags for your brain. How do we build positive neurotags? It can start by building a positive association for your brain. So, this could mean diffusing a calming oil blend while listening to a guided relaxation track. Once this association builds for the brain, you could then try using the same scent within a typically negative situation (assuming you have also removed the negative stimulus!). For people with pelvic floor pain, we often use gentle manual treatment (either with a finger or vaginal trainers) to provide a safe input to the tissues in a way that the brain will not guard and protect by pain.  Now, envision pairing that calming scent with gentle pelvic floor muscle desensitization? The options are endless for creativity in building positive neurotags! Movement can also be great to build positive neurotags! If you find that pain limits what you can do, working with a physical therapist to develop movements you can do, that keep you at minimal to no discomfort can help your brain build neurotags for safety with movement again!

If this is fascinating to you (as you know it is to me!), here are a few other resources to check out:

These amazing Vlogs by Jilly Bond, one of my favorite physios across the pond (You may recognize a certain someone in the second video!):

Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You, Part 2: Pain

Guest Post: There’s a Pelvis….in Your Brain? 

What neurotags have you noticed in your life? Fun? Serious? I want to hear them all!

Interview in Men’s Health Magazine on Chronic Pelvic Pain

Good morning!

I was interviewed for an article that was featured this month in Men’s Health! I wanted to share with all of you here! Excited to bring information on male chronic pelvic pain and pelvic floor physical therapy to such a big platform!

In the article, we discussed the scope of the problem, treatment recommendations, and even some details on what good pelvic PT should look like! I hope you all enjoy!

Click here to view the article in Men’s Health on male chronic pelvic pain!

~Jessica

Your Pelvic Floor as a Threat-o-meter

This past weekend, I was fortunate to work with an incredible group of practitioners at a Level 1 Pelvic Floor Course in my home city of Atlanta. I always leave these weekends renewed, excited, and yes, somewhat exhausted ;-). Not only do I get to teach with some pretty incredible colleagues (in this case, Sara Reardon– the VAGINA WHISPERER!!, and Darla Cathcart–who literally is the reason why I practice pelvic health!), but I also get the opportunity to see the transformation of clinicians who start the weekend a little nervous about the possibility of seeing a vulva, and end the weekend confident and empowered to start helping people who are experiencing pelvic floor problems. (Ok, some may not be 100% confident–but definitely on the road to confidence! ;-))

image1 (2)
Sara, Darla and I after our first day of teaching. This was before we were rained on and had to run to our hotel!

One of my favorite research studies of all time (yes, I am that nerdy) is always shared at this course with participants. This study by van der Velde and Everaerd examined the response of the pelvic floor muscles to perceived threat, comparing women who have vaginismus (painful vaginal penetration) compared to women who don’t.

Throughout my clinical career, the concept of stress and threat worsening pelvic floor problems has been a consistent thread. I frequently hear:

“My job has been so incredibly stressful this week. I am in so much pain today.” 

“Everything started this past year…during that time, my parents had been very sick and it was a very emotionally and sometimes physical stressful time for me” 

“I’ve been having a severe flare-up of my pain. Do you think the stress that I’ve been dealing with in going through a divorce/break-up/job change/move/new baby/new house/etc. etc. etc. could be related to this?” 

Honestly, I could go on and on with continued statements like this. Stress is a complicated topic, and there are many factors involved that can contribute to an alteration or increase in symptoms when a person is in a persistent stressful situation. So, back to my favorite study. In this study, the researchers had the participants watch four different film excerpts that were considered to be: neutral, threatening, sexually threatening or erotic. They then recorded the response of the pelvic floor muscles using EMG. The results of this study were fascinating. They found that with both the threatening stimulus(which happened to be an excerpt from the movie Jaws) and the sexually threatening stimulus (which was an excerpt from a TV movie called Without her Consent–which frankly, sounds awful to me!) the pelvic floor muscles demonstrated increased muscle activity. And this was true in both the groups of women who had vaginismus and the groups of women who did not. (side note: they also saw that the upper traps had this same activation pattern! Makes sense, right?)

Fascinating right? So, what does this mean? I always tell patients that the pelvic floor can be like a threat-o-meter. When a person is experiencing a threat–this can be a physical or emotional threat– the pelvic floor will respond. You can imagine then what happens when that stressful situation or threat stays around for a long period of time! This knowledge alone can sometimes be so empowering for people in better understanding why their bodies might be responding the way that they are.

So what can we do about it?

If you are dealing with pelvic floor muscle overactivity problems or pain, and you find yourself in a stressful or threatening period of time in life, try these ideas:

  • Be mindful of what is happening in your body: I encourage people to do regular “check-ins” or body scans throughout the day to feel how their pelvic floor muscles and other muscles might be activating. If you feel any muscles gripping, try to see if you can consciously soften and let go of tension you might feel. After doing this, try to take a slow long breath in and out thinking of letting tension release.
  • Remember that self-care is actually self-less: Taking care of our own needs allows us to better care for the needs of those around us. Remember the last time you flew in a plane– secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you! Self-care can mean making time in your day for regular exercise, taking steps to ensure you get the right nutrition you need to feel healthy, taking a break for yourself when you need it, being conscious about following the recommendations given to you by your pelvic PT 😉 or spending time doing a guided meditation or relaxation exercise. 
  • Drop it like it’s hot: Your pelvic floor, that is. Several times throughout the day, consciously think about letting your pelvic floor drop and lengthen. If you have a hard time feeling what your muscles are doing, you can try performing a small (think 10-25%) activation first and then think about letting go of any muscle activity.
  • Don’t be an island: Know that there are so many resources to help you if you need them! Working with a skilled psychologist or counselor can be incredibly beneficial to many people! And, if your pelvic floor is giving you some problems, always remember that you can go see a pelvic PT– yes, even if you had worked with one in the past! We are always here to help you get through life’s hurdles! Sometimes people end up needing little “refresher courses” along the way to help when the body needs it.

So, what are your favorite ways to manage stress? Fellow PTs- how do you help patients handle flare-ups that happen when life starts to get stressful?

I love to hear from you, and meet you! Always feel free to reach out to me here! If you would like to take a course with me, check out the schedule listed on my For Professionals page! I hope to meet you in person soon!

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Meet your newest pelvic health professionals from PF1 Atlanta 2018!

 

 

Pelvic Floor Safe Options for Fitness

Exercise has so many incredible benefits for overcoming pain, optimizing cardiovascular health, and facilitating psychological well-being. Unfortunately, for many struggling with pelvic floor dysfunction (whether it is in the form of pelvic pain, urinary/bowel dysfunction, or pelvic organ prolapse), thoughts of exercise and fitness are often accompanied by fear. Fear that moving incorrectly will lead to a worsening of their symptoms. Fear of a set-back. Fear of creating a new problem. Finding an exercise program that will not only be safe, but actually aid in a person’s recovery and pelvic floor health is a fine art. Seeing a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be a good step in finding an individualized exercise program, but many may not have the luxury of working with a professional.

Recently, I did some research to help a few my patients find on-demand options for guided fitness that were pelvic floor friendly. I am grateful to have such an incredible community of pelvic health professionals to learn from and learn with, and I wanted to share these fantastic resources with you here. As always, please know that what works well for one person may not work well for another, thus, an individualized assessment is always the best option to determine the most appropriate exercise program for you.

Yoga_at_a_Gym
By http://www.localfitness.com.au – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3910805

For those with pelvic pain or pelvic floor tension (often the case in cases of pelvic pain, constipation, overactive bladder):

For those with pelvic floor weakness (often the case–but not always! in situations like urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, diastasis rectus, fecal incontinence):

  • Mutu System: This is an excellent post-partum recovery program. Very helpful for those with pelvic floor weakness or diastasis rectus after having a baby. This is often my “go-to” for people having these problems that are unable to travel to see a pelvic PT. She does a great job at encouraging appropriate referral for further evaluation as well.
  • Fit2B: This is an online program with options for purchasing specific programs or for membership. It has a postpartum series, diastasis recti series, prenatal workshop, and foundational courses. I have had patients use this program who really enjoyed it.
  • The Pelvic Floor Piston: Foundation for Fitness by Julie Wiebe: Julie has an excellent course for individuals with pelvic floor dysfunction that incorporates education, exercises, as well as strategies for movement. It is a self-paced 90 minute video.
  • Your Pace Yoga by Dustienne Miller: Dustienne has expanded her video library to include videos such as “Optimizing Bladder Control” which includes sequences to support pelvic floor engagement through yoga.
  • Creating Pelvic Floor Health with Shelly Prosko: Part B Pelvic Floor Muscle Engagement. “40 minute practice that includes engagement of the pelvic floor muscles with various mindful movements and yoga postures integrated with the breath pattern.” Shelly was kind enough to offer blog viewers 10% off her combined package using the discount code: ClientDiscount10
  • FemFusion Fitness by Brianne Grogan: Brianne has an excellent video series (free too!) on youtube called, “Lift” Pelvic Support. This series includes a progression for safe progression through strengthening to better support the organs in the pelvis.
  • Pelvic Exercises by Michelle Kenway: Michelle has done excellent work creating videos and ebooks on safe exercise progressions for pelvic floor muscle weakness, prolapse, bowel dysfunction and surgical recovery. Check out her excellent videos here.

I hope these resources are helpful! Did I leave anything out? If you have other wonderful home exercise options that are “pelvic floor friendly” please let me know in the comments below!

~Jessica

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

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

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

Pelvis image

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

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

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

brain areas

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

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

homonculus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

 

 

Clinical Expert Interview with Susan Clinton, PT on Sensory Balloon Retraining for Bowel Dysfunction

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!

Head, Shoulders, Knees…and Pelvic Floor!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great Tuesday!

Jessica

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