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! ;-))

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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!

 

 

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.

 

 

Treatment Highlight: Internal Pelvic Floor Manual Therapy

Over the past week, and really the past year, the cases of sexual abuse and assault perpetrated by Larry Nassar, a medical doctor with MSU and USA gymnastics, have rocked the nation. The horrific abuse he inflicted on well over 150 young women, under the guise of “appropriate medical intervention” is deplorable, and I know many of us were glad to see him held accountable for his actions with both the verdict and sentencing last week.

In the pelvic PT world, this hit very close to home, and made all of us completely infuriated. For this person to take a completely valid, evidence-based and extremely beneficial treatment technique, and contort it into being an avenue for abuse was unfathomable to those of us who have dedicated our careers to helping men and women with pelvic floor problems. Several colleagues have spoken out about this. Particularly, Lori Mize, the incoming Vice President of the Section on Women’s Health, wrote an excellent post for the Huffington Post, that I would strongly encourage you to read.

Over the next year, I want to highlight a variety of treatment techniques used in pelvic floor physical therapy to help you better understand treatment options, and hopefully alleviate some fear that some of you may have about “the unknown.” In light of these current events, I thought it would be meaningful to start by discussing internal manual therapy techniques for the pelvic floor muscles.

What is it?

Internal manual therapy techniques are a treatment used for someone who has overactive, tender and/or shortened pelvic floor muscles. Before we get started, if you want to better understand the anatomy of the pelvic floor, check out this post by my friend and colleague Tracy Sher. Tender or overactive pelvic floor muscles can occur when someone is experiencing problems like pelvic pain, painful sexual intercourse, tailbone pain, as well as urinary or bowel dysfunction.

These techniques are performed either vaginally or rectally by a skilled medical practitioner who has undergone advanced training to learn to evaluate and treat the pelvic floor muscles. They are only performed once the patient has been thoroughly educated about the treatment techniques and consents to participating in the treatment.

What does treatment involve?

The goal of internal manual therapy is to improve the relaxation, lengthening and tenderness of the pelvic floor muscles. Generally, the patient is first positioned comfortably in either hooklying (on their back with knees bent, sometimes resting on a pillow– yep, no stirrups needed!), sidelying or sometimes on their stomach, depending on what position is preferable to the patient and allows the therapist access to the tissues being treated. The therapist then places one gloved finger within the vaginal or rectal canal and gently presses on the muscles of the pelvic floor to identify (with constant feedback from the patient) where the muscles are tender or uncomfortable. Manual therapy techniques then can be performed to help improve the tenderness of these muscles and promote relaxation and lengthening. These techniques can include:

  • Holding gentle pressure while the patient focused on relaxing and breathing
  • Holding gentle pressure while the patient performs a contact/relax of the muscles or a pelvic floor bulge.
  • Holding gentle pressure while simultaneously pressing with the opposite hand on a point around the pelvis to produce slack in the muscle (a modified strain counter strain technique.
  • Sweeping stretches over the muscle belly

Different therapists have different approaches, but they all are done in complete collaboration and communication with the patient and are modified based on the patient’s comfort and response to the treatment. Personally, I tend to prefer more gentle approaches while also focusing globally on improving awareness and calming the nervous system. This is not a “no pain no gain” situation– in fact, most often we see the best results when we are able to keep pain at a very minimal level.

What type of training should the therapist have?

It is very important that the person performing this treatment has had specialized training in this technique. At minimum, they should have attended an initial continuing education course that teaches a beginner level evaluation and treatment of the pelvic floor, generally weekend course including at least 24 hrs of instruction. Many training programs now include a 3 or 4 course series, and I strongly encourage clinicians to complete the coursework to learn how to comprehensively care for their patients. At Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, the organization I am a faculty member of, we have a 4-course series which includes a level 1, 2A, 2B and Capstone. The Section on Women’s Health has a 3- course series and there are now several other companies offering varying training programs. Of course, I’m biased as a faculty member of H&W and if you’re reading this and work in healthcare in pelvic rehab, you should definitely come to one of my courses!

Who does this treatment help?

As I mentioned above, manual therapy to the pelvic floor is helpful when a person has overactive, tender and/or shortened pelvic floor muscles that are contributing to the problem they are experiencing. This can occur when a person has pain in and around the pelvis or if the person is experiencing urinary, bowel or sexual dysfunction.

We are producing more and more research about these techniques every day, but here are a few snippets:

  • In this study, 50% of the men treated to address chronic scrotal pain saw a significant reduction in their pain.
  • In this study, 93 people were treated with pelvic floor techniques to address coccyx pain (as well as pain after coccyx removal). Overall, they saw an average of 71% improvement.
  • This study compared comprehensive pelvic PT to cognitive behavioral therapy for women with provoked Vestibulodynia. They found that 80% of the women in the PT group had significant improvements compared to 70% in the CBT group.
  • This study evaluated the effects of pelvic floor physical therapy techniques on pain reduction in men who had chronic pelvic pain. Treatment included internal and external techniques and over 70% experienced moderate or robust improvements.
  • This study found that 62% of women experiencing urinary frequency, urgency and/or bladder pain who were treated with physical therapy interventions, including internal manual therapy techniques, reported feeling “much better” or “very much better” following the interventions.

I hope this was helpful and removed some of the fear from this technique! If you think this treatment may be a helpful one for you, talk with your health care provider! As always, I love to answer any questions you may have!

~Jessica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a wonderful week!

Jessica

 

Sex After Baby- 4 Reasons Why It Can Hurt and What To Do About It

“Ok, TMI…but is everyone having sex again? We tried last night and OMG it was awful! So painful!!”

I clicked on the thread in one of my Facebook moms groups, and slowly looked through the comments, hoping to see words of encouragement, support, and most importantly, solid health advice. 

“I know, me too. I just try to avoid it as much as I can.”

“What is sex? LOL”

Then, I began my comment, “Hi, I’m a pelvic PT and also the mom to a 6 month old. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. It’s so important to know that pain is not something you have to live with. There is help out there…”

Why is painful sex after childbirth so overlooked in healthcare? Why do so many women feel like they just have to live with this as a normal “consequence” of having a baby?

This past fall, I went through the craziest initiation process to join one of the most exclusive clubs out there: Motherhood. It has been an incredible and humbling journey for me, especially as a health care provider who specializes in helping women with problems they experience while pregnant and postpartum. Becoming a mother has allowed me to experience and witness first-hand many of the challenges women face after having babies.

Pain during sexual activity is extremely common after childbirth (Note: I said common…NOT normal). In fact, a large study of over 1000 women found that 85% experience pain during their first vaginal intercourse postnatally. At 3 months postpartum, 45% still were experiencing pain and at 18 months postpartum, 23% were still experiencing pain. Let that sink in. When a mother’s baby is 18 months old, 1 in 5 mamas had pain during sex! And the sad thing is that pain during sexual intercourse is SO treatable!! So, let’s get down to business…

Why could sex hurt after a baby? 

baby-165067_1280

  1. Perineal Trauma from Childbirth

    Spontaneous tearing and episiotomies are very common during vaginal deliveries. In fact, this study looking at 449 women who had at least 1 delivery found that only 3% of them did not have any tearing/episiotomy. Many women are able to heal from tears without problems. However, for some women, these injuries can become sources of pain, especially during sexual intercourse. This is especially true with more severe tears extending into the external anal sphinctor and rectum (grade 3-4 tears). This study found that women who had tears extending into the anal sphinctor were 3-4 times more likely to have pain during intercourse at 1 year postpartum compared to their counterparts. Perineal scars can be very sensitive and move poorly in some women leading to persistent discomfort which can last for years after the baby is born when it is not treated (but guess what? It CAN be treated!)

  2. Hormonal Changes

    Anyone who has had a baby can attest to the crazy hormonal fluctuations that happen during pregnancy and postpartum. One of my very best friends warned me about this telling me that she cried every day for the first week after the baby was born. Guess what? So did I. These crazy hormones can also impact what is happening down below, especially in breastfeeding mamas. Basically, the hormonal changes lead to decreased estrogen in the vulvar tissues often causing thinning and dryness. This is why breastfeeding is associated with painful sexual intercourse early on postpartum. Now, if you are reading this and you are a nursing mama like myself, should you stop to fix your sexual discomfort? Not necessarily. This study found that although nursing was associated with dyspareunia at 6 weeks postpartum, the association was eliminated by 6 months. Meaning, stopping nursing won’t necessarily fix the problem (so don’t let this be your deciding factor in the decision to breastfeed your babe).

  3.  Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles

    The pelvic floor muscles themselves can become big sources of sexual discomfort if they are tender, shortened or irritated after childbirth. Perineal trauma and hormonal changes can lead to tenderness in the pelvic floor muscles, but the muscles can also stand on their own. Many people believe that C-sections protect the pelvic floor muscles from having problems, however, we have to remember that the pelvic floor are one member of a team of muscles (including the deep abdominal muscles, low back muscles and respiratory diaphragm) that work together to provide support and stability to the pelvis. That could be partially why C-section mamas are actually 2-3 times more likely to experience more intense pain during sexual intercourse at 6 months postpartum.

  4. Because Babies are Hard

    I had to add this one in. It’s important to remember than normal sexual function should include sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm. New mamas are exhausted, feeding sweet little babies around the clock, settling into a new routine whether they are returning to jobs or caring for their babies at home,  sleep-deprived from often waking up multiple times a night, changing diapers, and worrying constantly about helping these little babies survive and thrive. And honestly, it can be really hard for many moms to have the same level of sexual desire and arousal that they had prior to having their babies (at least until life settles down– or I’m told–when the babies go to college LOL). When a woman experiences sexual desire and arousal, there is natural lubrication and lengthening of the vaginal canal, and this step is so important in having enjoyable sexual activity. Sometimes, when this step is skipped, women are more likely to experience discomfort with vaginal penetration.

So, what can be done to help?

Realize it is not normal. Don’t just deal with it. And check-in with your Obstetric provider.

The first step is seeing your OB or midwife to make sure everything is ok medically. She should evaluate you to make sure everything is healing the way that it should be healing and that nothing else is going on that needs to be managed medically. I have had patients who have had difficulties healing after tears and needed some medical help to encourage their tissues to heal the way they needed to. I have also worked with women who had underlying infections contributing to their pain, that of course, needed to be treated to move forward. This is not a step you should skip, so don’t be bashful! Tell your doctor what is going on.

Don’t be afraid to use a little help.

I get it. You never had to use lubricant before, and it’s annoying to have to use it now. But guess what? It can make a HUGE difference in reducing discomfort from thin or dehydrated vulvar tissues after babies! So, if you don’t already have a good one, go pick out a nice water-based lubricant to use. Some of my favorites for my patients are Slippery Stuff and Sliquid. I am also a big fan of coconut oil (but make sure to know that using it with condoms can cause condom breakdown).

If you are having difficulty with sexual arousal and desire since having your baby, and you feel comfortable with it (I know, some women don’t!), try using a small vibrator to help with improving sexual arousal and promoting orgasm. Many sex therapists I work with encourage couples to consider using this on days when they need a little assistance attaining the arousal they need.

Educate your sexual partner and empower them to help you

It can be so helpful to include partners in this process. Show them this blog post, so they can understand what could be going on, and empower them to help you! For some women having difficulties with arousal, having their partner do something like clean up after dinner and put the baby to bed so they can have time for a quiet relaxing shower can be just the ticket to helping them become more sexually aroused to decrease sexual discomfort. If you are having problems with painful perineal scars or pelvic floor muscles, consider including your partner in your medical or physical therapy visits so they can understand what you are experiencing. Many pelvic PTs (like myself) will often educate partners in methods to help with decreasing pain , and even in treating the pelvic floor muscles/scars (if both people feel comfortable and on-board with this!).

Go see a pelvic PT!

If you have tender pelvic floor muscles or painful scars, all the lubricant and sexual arousal in the world is not going to fix the problem. Working with a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be hugely beneficial in identifying where and what the problem is, and helping you move forward from pain!

A skilled physical therapist will spend time talking with you the first visit to understand your history (including specifics of your delivery), and will perform a comprehensive examination, head to toe, to see how your body moves, where you might not be moving as well as you could be, and how you transfer force through your body. They will also perform an examination of the abdominal wall (especially important for C-section mamas), and an internal vaginal examination of the pelvic floor muscles. Based on this examination, they will be able to work with you to develop a plan to help you optimize the function of your body and get back to a happy and healthy sex life!

This is first in likely a few series of posts I will be doing on postpartum specific problems. I hope you all enjoy! Please please please reach out if you have any questions at all!

Have a wonderful week!

Jessica

 

Your bladder and bowels need a diary.

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. 

Level 1 pelvic
Cathy Neal (an awesome PT who assisted with me), Susannah Haarmann (an awesome PT who instructed the course), and myself! 🙂 We’re just missing Amanda Shipley and Pam Downey! Photo courtesy of Susannah!

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!

If you want to get started today, try using one of these free templates available online (John Hopkins’ Bladder Diary, Continence Foundation Diary, or Movicol’s “Choose your Poo!” Diary) There are also wonderful apps available now for tracking bowel/bladder function! This is a sample of a diary I frequently use in the clinic (see below).

Bladder Diary

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!

Happy Wednesday!

~Jessica

The benefits of slowing down

“Ok, let’s try that again, but I want you to do it a little bit more slowly.” 

“Let’s see if you can do that with a little bit less tension.” 

“Do you feel how your neck is working while you’re trying to move your hips? Let’s see if you can do that with only moving your hips.” 

These statements (or variations of them) are ones I tend to make most days of the week. One of the most common things I notice in the men and women I treat with persistent pelvic pain is difficulty in modulating tension. I generally can see this from the moment they walk in my office:

  • Gripping postures, sitting with the shoulders elevated, gripping the chest or the glutes, tightening the back.
  • Minimal variability of movement (basically meaning it is difficult for them to move in different patterns, fully bend and rotate their spines and hips, etc)
  • Altered breathing patterns with poor diaphragmatic excursion

This type of high-tension behavior often occurs in conjunction with a dominant sympathetic nervous system (which we have discussed several times in the past– read here and here). In these cases, the body will feel constantly threatened (makes sense if you’ve had pain for a long time and don’t seem to get better) which can lead to the “fight-or-flight” response being pushed into overdrive. When this occurs, we typically see amped up muscle tension, changes in breathing patterns, and many additional physiological compensations (which you can read more about here). And, I believe this pattern tends to also lead to an overly gripped, hypervigilant pelvic floor muscle group. Then, what I typically see is that instead of the pelvic floor activating with variability, based on the required task at hand (meaning, small amounts of activation for small tasks, and large amounts of activation for bigger tasks), we will instead see loss of force modulation with very high amounts of activation for basic tasks and an inability to let go of that force for simple tasks or tasks that require relaxation (bowel movements, sex, etc).

So, with all of that being said, one of the best things a person with persistent pelvic pain can do is to learn to slow down and control his or her tension patterns. My patients typically begin working on this within the first week or so of treatment, and we continue working on this throughout the initial phase of their care. Basically, our goal is to create awareness of movement–to move mindfully and truly feel what the body is doing to accomplish a task. Typically, as a person becomes more mindful of the movements he or she is performing, we will see an alteration in the force required to perform the movement and this, along with other treatments we are working on, encourages a shift of the body from an overly sympathetic state to a more neutral one. 

So, how can you get started with slow and mindful movements if you are struggling with persistent pelvic pain? 

First, if you are already working with a pelvic PT, talk with them about your tension strategies. Ask her if she has noticed you moving with higher tension and discuss with her integrating slow and mindful movements within your treatment program. If you are not in pelvic PT, or wish to try something on your own, here is one of my favorite exercises to start with:

The Pelvic Clock 

  • This exercise is adapted from a Feldenkrais movement (I believe). I love it because I can integrate diaphragmatic breathing with pelvic floor relaxation, and it encourages awareness of the movement of the pelvis. I tend to find that many people with pelvic pain have difficulty truly knowing where their pelvis is in space and how it moves, and this exercise can help to improve that.  So, let’s get started.

Pelvic Clock

  • Begin in a relaxed comfortable position, lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet resting on the mat (bed, floor, whatevs). Visualize a clock sitting on your pelvis as is shown in the picture above.
  • Start with slow, diaphragmatic breathing. Remember, breathing with your diaphragm will allow the ribcage to expand in all directions, the belly and chest will lift, but the muscles of your neck and shoulders should stay relaxed. If you have not read much about diaphragmatic breathing, read this post and its links before moving forward)
  • Next, we will start to integrate your pelvic floor into your breathing. So, on the next inhale, visualize the breath allowing your pelvic floor to lengthen and relax. This should not be something forceful (ie. don’t push out your pelvic floor), but rather, just focus on letting go of tension as you inhale, allowing the pelvic floor to gently lengthen and the abdominal wall to let go of any tension.
  • Next, we will add in gentle movement of the pelvis with your breath. As you inhale, the pelvic floor will relax and pelvis will gently tilt toward 6 o’clock (allowing the tailbone to fall toward the mat). As you exhale, gently tilt the pelvis back to 12 o’clock allowing the low back to slowly come into contact with the mat. Repeat this slow pattern, focusing on trying to use small amounts of muscle tension to accomplish the task. Remember that this movement and really any other movement should not cause you to guard, tense your muscles or drive up any of the pain you are experiencing.
  • Once you feel confident and comfortable with the previous step, you can begin to add the rotational component. This time, as you inhale, slowly rotate the pelvis around the clock shifting from 12 –> 3 –> 6, ending in the position where your tailbone is gently dropped toward the mat. As you exhale, allow the pelvis to rotate from 6–> 9–> 12, ending in the position where your low back is gently resting on the mat.  Repeat this pattern for several breaths, then try to reverse the motion (inhaling as you move from 12 –>9–>6 and exhaling from 6–>3–>12)
  • Challenge yourself further by trying to allow the pelvis to move through all the numbers of the clock (12–>1–>2–>3… etc).

Remember, there is no rush to performing this exercise! The purpose is awareness– to really feel your pelvis move and shut off any additional tension in performing the task. Did you feel your neck tighten as you were moving? Try again with a focus on keeping it relaxed. Are your legs tightening and moving frequently as you move through the clock? Try to see if you can calm that tension and isolate the movement to your pelvis. Do you feel your pelvic floor gripping as you move? Try to see if you can keep the emphasis on relaxing the pelvic floor during your breathing.

Are you thirsty for more? 

A few of my other favorites for slow, mindful movements are found in both Yoga and the Feldenkrais method. I love Dustienne Miller’s (she’s a pelvic PT too!) home video, yoga for pelvic pain and have had many patients benefit from using it. I also enjoy the Awareness Through Movement lessons with the Feldenkrais Method. Several free online lessons are available here via the OpenATM program.

I hope you have found this helpful! What other movements have you found helpful for pelvic pain? Pelvic PTs and patients, feel free to chime in, so we can all keep learning together!

Happy Wednesday!

~ Jessica