Hi everyone! I’ve been staying up till midnight nearly every night, and no, it’s not because of my baby (she’s an amazing sleeper!). It’s because TODAY is move-in day at Southern Pelvic Health! My garage is packed with furniture, and I can’t wait to get this space ready!
We are also getting social!! I love blogging here, and I’m excited to bring smaller bits of content, tips, and pelvic floor love to the social media scene! Check out our Instagram and follow @southernpelvichealth! You can also find us on Facebook!
6 weeks ago, we welcomed our second daughter into the world. Mary Lynn was 6 lbs 10 oz of squishy, adorable, babyness. And she came into the world via a Caesarean birth. And it was amazing. And hard. But good.
C-sections come with challenges, just like vaginal births do, and for me, these challenges included a significant blood loss that led to me fainting on the second day, a super low blood pressure due to a response to the epidural that contributed to the fainting but also meant going off of my epidural pain meds really early, and nerve pain that lasted for about a month after Mary was born. (We’ll y’all more about that another time.)
Since I am living the early postpartum life, I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts on my own rehabilitation journey (since, in many ways, each of my births has been a mini-case study for myself!).
So, let’s talk Cesarean rehab in the first 6 weeks!
Moving well after major abdominal surgery
I love when people imply that birthing via Cesarean section is somehow “the easy way out” compared to birthing via the vagina. Hello people, this is major abdominal surgery! All mommas get birthing badges– let’s support each other in our journeys, right?!
Initially after a Cesarean, movement alone can be challenging. Standing up from a chair. Rolling over in bed. Lying down in bed. But the good news is that with some easy tips, this movement can become much easier. First, as you are moving, bending, standing, etc. remember to “blow before you go.” This easy to remember phrase comes from my friend and colleague, Julie Wiebe. This means, begin to exhale before you initiate a movement. Breathing like this with movement helps to control pressures within the abdomen and pelvis, so it can significantly help you in your movement after having your baby- both in terms of ease but also in protecting your pelvis and abdomen.
When standing up from a chair, remember, nose over toes. Scoot to the edge of the chair first. As you go to stand, lean forward first. This puts your body weight over your legs and helps take the burden away from your core.
When you lie down or get up from lying down, channel your inner log. So, when you lie down, first sit on the edge of the bed. Slowly lift your legs onto the bed, then lower the rest of the body down, using your arms for support. If you need to roll over, bend your knees, then roll your body as a unit- like a log. Reverse these steps for getting up out of bed.
Abdominal Binders and Compression Underwear? It depends. It may be worth considering using an abdominal binder for the first few weeks after your birth, progressing to wearing compression underwear or shorts(ie Spanx, SRS recovery shorts, Core shorts). These types of garments provide support to the abdomen and can be incredibly helpful for moving and walking around after your surgery. The flip side with compressing the abdomen is that it can impact how well you can move your ribcage and can influence pressure mechanics within the pelvis. So, if you are already struggling with pelvic organ prolapse or urinary leakage, or if you pushed for a period of time before having a Caesarean birth, it may be worth talking with a pelvic floor PT prior to utilizing this during your recovery. Generally, the compression underwear/shorts provide more support to the pelvic floor and abdomen, so they may be a little better with pressure modulation than the binder. For me personally, the binder and compression undies were amazing! They took away my nerve pain, and helped me move much better. I chose to wear these sporadically during the day (a bit on, a bit off), and practiced breathing well with my diaphragm during the times the binder was off.
Handling your incision
Initially, your main focus here is keeping your incision clean, and monitoring it to make sure it is healing well with no signs of infection. Around 6 weeks, if you are cleared by your physician, you can begin to gently mobilize the tissue around the scar and aim to desensitize the scar. I usually start above and below the scar, before working on the scar itself. You can perform gentle massage to the tissue above and below the scar and gently stretch the skin in all directions above and below the scar. You can also gently desensitize the scar by touching it with your fingers or a wet cloth, and gently rubbing across the scar in all directions. We can mobilize this scar tissue further, but we are going to talk about this in a future post as this post is focusing on the early period of healing.
At this time, you can also begin applying silicone gel or silicone strips to help soften your scar and prevent hypertrophic or keloid scars. Silicone is considered a gold-standard treatment for the prevention or treatment of hypertrophic scars. While most of the research regarding silicone is of poor quality with significant bias, evidence does tend to suggest a positive benefit. My first Caesarean did lead to a hypertrophic scar, so I began applying silicone gel to my scar once cleared by my OB to do so, around 4 weeks after Mary’s birth. I’ll report back on the difference between this new scar and the old one (See, mini case study!).
**I also have to note here that my colleague, Kathe Wallace, has a fantastic book that details some recommendations for scar tissue management after Caesarean. Kathe also offers a free abdominal scar massage guide at her website, which is a fantastic resource!
Exercise in the Early Postpartum Period
If I could give you one piece of advice on this early postpartum period, it would be to relax. Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to recover and heal. I find that so many people want to jump into too much, way too soon, and unfortunately, this can be more harmful than it is helpful. Remember, you just did something incredible. You just had major surgery. You deserve to rest.
When we think about exercise during this initial period of healing, we are going to start very gently. Here are a few things you can get started on:
Walking: I’m not talking about going and walking several miles. During the first few weeks, it’s best to really rest, and give your body time to heal. Getting up, walking around the house as you feel comfortable can be very beneficial. As you continue to heal, during the next few weeks, you can increase your walking. So, this may include some outings and short periods of walking between 2-4 weeks. Between 4-6 weeks, you can generally consider a leisurely walk in your neighborhood or a longer outing. The key here is to listen to your body. Rest when you need to, but gradually move to increase your endurance. After you see your OB for a postpartum visit around 4-6 weeks, and you are cleaned to do so, you can continue to gradually increase your walking as you are feeling comfortable. Are you antsy to jump back into running? Zumba? Bootcamp? Pilates? Don’t. We’ll get there. But let’s rest right now.
Breathing: You all know I am fairly obsessed with the diaphragm. 4 years after this post was written, I still think it’s one of the coolest muscles in the body. The diaphragm works in coordination with the pelvic floor muscles, deep abdominal muscles and deep low back muscles to provide support to the abdominal organs, modulate pressure in the thorax and pelvis, and provide dynamic stability to our spine and pelvis. Slow breathing, aiming to expand your ribcage and relax your abdomen as you inhale, then slowly exhaling your air can be incredibly beneficial to re-establishing these normal functional relationships.
Gentle Pelvic Floor Muscle Activation & Relaxation: First, my biggest recommendation would be to SEE A PELVIC PT before and during your pregnancy so you really know your current function and can have an individualized plan to get the most out of your muscles and your body. I encourage people to discuss their delivery with their OB, and ask about beginning gentle pelvic floor and abdominal exercises. The timeline for starting this will depend on the specifics of your delivery, and we want to be smart when activating muscles that have been cut. When your provider is on-board with you starting, I like to pair gentle pelvic floor and abdominal wall activation with breathing. This looks like this:
Inhale, expanding your ribcage, relaxing your abdomen and your pelvic floor muscles.
Exhale and gently draw in your pelvic floor muscles, allowing your lower abdominal muscles to also gently draw in. Aim for a “moderate” effort to allow activation of the muscles but not overactivate them.
Then, relax your muscles again as you inhale, repeating this cycle.
Aim to do this for a minute or two, twice each day.
Stay tuned as we continue this journey over the next few weeks and months! What have been your challenges after childbirth? For my fellow health care professionals, what else do you like people to know immediately after a caesarean birth?
Ok, so I have been SO excited to share this with all of you, but needless to say, I’ve been a little busy with nursing, diapers, and keeping a very active toddler happy.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the chance to treat hundreds of patients in a few different job settings. I’ve also helped to educate hundreds of other health care providers as they journey into pelvic health rehabilitation. I have learned so much through these experiences– both about patient care and creating a positive, motivating and enjoyable clinic environment for patients and clinicians alike!
So, I am thrilled to announce that I will be opening my own practice this fall! I have soooo many more details to share, but for now, I can tell you that I will begin seeing clients on October 1st, and will open scheduling in mid August! (If you want to be contacted first when the schedule opens, send me a message now!)
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out!! Can’t wait to share more details with all of you in the next few weeks/months!!
Happy Pelvic Pain Awareness Month! I do plan to post a few blogs on pelvic pain over the course of this month, I promise, but I wanted to quickly share with you a few events I am going to be a part of over the next month!
First, next Wednesday, May 15th, I will be the special guest at a FREE pelvic health education event hosted by PLS Yoga and Wholeheart Psychotherapy, “Women’s Pelvic Health: Key Considerations for Health and Wellbeing for Women Living with Pelvic Pain” The event will run 7-9 pm at 6 Lenox Pt NE in Atlanta! If you are struggling with pelvic pain, please join us for this incredible evening!
Next, on Sunday June 2nd my colleagues and I will have a booth at the Mama Bear Fair, hosted by Dr. Jamie Michael’s chiropractic clinic in Smyrna! Fitting, as this is just 2 weeks before my due date (I did tell you all I was expecting another baby girl, didn’t I?) Stop in between 3-6pm to chat with me about prenatal/postpartum care and pelvic health! RSVP for the event via Facebook!
I hope to see some of you at these events! Please feel free to be in touch if you have any questions!
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!
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can be an incredibly life-impacting condition, affecting around 10-20% of the population (80% of those individuals being female!). The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but it is thought to likely be multifactorial.
IBS is characterized by abdominal pain paired with constipation and/or diarrhea. When many people hear about IBS, they may not automatically think that working with a physical therapist could be useful; however, there is so much that physical therapists can do to help improve symptoms related to IBS. Here are a few!
1.) Assist the client in developing optimal bowel habits.
We’ve discussed in detail several times how our habits can be extremely connected to our bowel function. This is also very true for individuals dealing with IBS–whether struggling with constipation, diarrhea or both! Training bowel habits includes developing a consistent bowel routine, optimizing dietary habits, and even toilet positioning/defecation strategies. These factors basically aim to help make sure your habits are working for you instead of against you. Sometimes these components require a more multidisciplinary team. This can include working with your GI physician, pelvic PT, as well as a dietician, functional medicine provider, and other specialties.
2.) Global downtraining and stress management.
Did you know you have an extensive neural network throughout your GI system? This network has been termed “the second brain” due to its ability to function even when cut off from the rest of the system. It’s also often called “the emotional brain of the body,” which makes sense when we think about how often we feel our emotions in our gut (i.e. “butterflies in your stomach” or “my gut reaction”) All is this means that our GI function can often be influenced by our stress, emotional regulation, and general psychological well being.
Qin et al. (2014) stated, “More and more clinical and experimental evidence showed that IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain.” They went on to add that psychological stress can impact intestinal mobility, motility, secretions and permeability. They concluded that, “IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder, therefore, the treatment of IBS should focus on managing stress and stress-induced responses.”
Pelvic PTs utilize strategies promoting downtraining and neuromuscular relaxation to help calm the nervous system and promote a more parasympathetic dominant state. This can be done through movement, relaxation strategies, mindfulness/meditation, and many other techniques. Want to get started on mindfulness now? Check out this prior post on Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain.
3.) Specific exercises aimed at promoting better movement.
This may not seem connected at first, but the reality is that when people aren’t feeling well or when someone is struggling with constipation/diarrhea, people tend to move less. This can often impact bowel function as regular exercise tends to stimulate more regular bowel movements. This 2019 review of 14 studies involving exercise interventions aimed at improving IBS symptoms found that exercise does seem to have a role in helping bowel function (Note: many of these studies were not so great, and found to have a high risk of bias, so more studies are definitely needed!)
Schuman et al. (2016) performed a review of 6 randomized-controlled trials looking at the role of yoga in helping people with IBS. I’ll be honest, I absolutely love yoga and find the pairing of breathing, mindfulness and movement to be so beneficial to myself and my patients. So, I was not surprised to see this review showing that the groups participating in yoga had decreased bowel symptoms, IBS severity and anxiety.
Additionally, it is common for someone with chronic constipation and/or diarrhea to have restrictions in the movement of their hips and spine. Restoring this movement through specific exercise can facilitate better function of the muscles around the pelvis, including those involved directly in bowel function.
4.) Treat the myofascial components of the problem.
We have discussed the viscerosomatic and somatovisceral reflexes in the past. Basically, when a person has an organ problem (in this case, IBS), we often will find that the myofascial tissues around the organ can become restricted and sensitive. This can be interconnected where myofascial dysfunction can worsen a visceral problem and a visceral problem worsens myofascial dysfunction. Thus, addressing both sides of the problem can often be very optimal. From a musculoskeletal standpoint, this means identifying structures around the abdomen and pelvis which may be sensitive or not moving as optimally. This can often include the abdominal wall, hip muscles, thigh muscles, buttocks muscles and the muscles around the low and mid back.
5.) Treat underlying or co-existing pelvic floor problems.
Prott et al. (2010) found that there were relationships between pelvic floor symptoms andanorectal function in individuals with IBS. Dysfunction of the muscles of the pelvic floor can present as weakness, which can lead to either difficulty holding back stool or poor support around the rectum. It can also include overactivity and poor relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles. This can contribute to pain, but also can influence how well the muscles can open for defecation , or hold back when they need to. Additionally, people can experience difficulties with coordination of the pelvic floor– basically, when the muscles do not contract or relax when they should. Dyssynergic defecation occurs when the pelvic floor muscles contract instead of relax when a person has a bowel movement. This can be a significant problem for those struggling with constipation. I wrote a whole article on that, and you can find it here. Sphinctor dyssynergia can occur in individuals with IBS as well as other types of constipation, and can be treated with pelvic PT (lots of treatment options, including SEMG biofeedback which has been found to be helpful for people with and without IBS).
IBS can be so impacting to a person’s life, and you don’t have to suffer alone! I encourage you to build your multidisciplinary team and start getting the help you need to get the most out of life!
What strategies have you found most helpful in dealing with IBS? As always, I’d love to hear from you!
Did you know that Endometriosis affects more people that inflammatory bowel disease?
Did you know that 10-15% of women (and some men too!!) suffer with endometriosis?
Did you know that they often see 7+ physicians before being diagnosed with the condition?
Endometriosis is so common, and often can be a very life-impacting condition. As a pelvic PT, I often treat individuals with endometriosis, helping them with the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular sequelae of the condition. I have also helped many patients navigate the healthcare system to ultimately receive the appropriate care they so desperately have needed.
In honor of Endometriosis Awareness Month, I asked Dr. Ken Sinervo, the medical director for the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta, GA to spend some time with me discussing this important diagnosis. Dr. Sinervo is an expert in treating endometriosis, and I can’t tell you how lucky I am that his office is about 20 minutes from mine! He is also a kind and humble person and a compassionate physician, and I was so excited to interview him for this post!
In the video below, we discuss:
What is endometriosis and where does it occur?
What are the current theories on the causes of endo?
How can it be treated?
Excision vs. Ablation surgery
How to find an Endo expert
For pelvic PTs: How do you identify patients who may have endo?
And, as an extra bonus, cherry on top, Dr. Sinervo describes the research he is involving in trying to identify potential markers to actually test for endometriosis!!
I hope you enjoy the video as much as I enjoyed interviewing him! I apologize in advance if our video cuts out a little bit, but I don’t think it impacts the incredible content (Our weather in Atlanta was a little struggly, so I think my internet had some difficulties!).
I started writing this post a few different ways. Over the past several years, I have had handouts and brochures detailing out what is included in a first visit with a pelvic PT, but I liked the idea of something a little less formal. So, I started writing a letter to that new pelvic PT patient, and I hope it helps you (and your patients!!) feel more comfortable getting started!
Hello there soon-to-be pelvic health PT patient:
We are SO thankful you are trusting us in partnering with you in your healing journey. We’re very glad you’re here. I realize that taking this step and actually scheduling a visit with a pelvic floor specialist can be nerve-racking, and you should be quite proud of yourself for taking this important step! I want to take a few minutes to talk with you about your first session in pelvic PT. I find that much of the fear and uncertainty people may feel with a first visit is often connected with this “unknown.” So, I hope today I can take some of that away, so you can feel more comfortable on that first day. So, let’s get started:
Your arrival to the clinic
Before you arrive to the clinic, you likely had a good amount of paperwork to fill out (Sorry about that!). Some of it is the standard healthcare type stuff, but there also is a more specific questionnaire. This questionnaire gets fairly personal. You’ll see questions in it about your bladder health (how often you pee? what do you drink? are you leaking urine?), your bowel function (are you constipated? do you strain when you have a bowel movement? do you leak stool?), your sexual function (are you sexually active? do you have difficulties with pain during sexual activity? problems with arousal or orgasm?), and any pain you’re experiencing (where is your pain? what worsens or improves it? how much does it hurt?) I’ll also ask you about your medical history, your medications, and if it applies to you, your history of pregnancies and childbirth, etc. I know this is a lot of detail, but this is very helpful for me in providing your care! Please feel free to put as much or as little detail on this as you feel comfortable doing. We will have a chance to discuss all of this in person.
Nice to meet you, let’s get personal!
After you and I meet, I will take you back to a private room, and we will chat about what’s going on. This is when we’ll talk about your story, what brought you here, what are the challenges you have been facing, what has been your journey, and what are your goals you want to reach. We’ll also discuss the questions you answered on that detailed questionnaire, and I may ask you some other questions to get more information about the challenges you have been dealing with. I know it can feel a little weird for some people to share details about your bowel habits or sexual function with a person you just met, but believe me, for those of us who practice in this specialty, we talk about these things all the time. As we are chatting, please feel free to tell me anything at all that you think might be important. Don’t hold back…believe me, I most likely have heard all of this before. On that note, please know that I want you to feel comfortable and safe in the clinic, and if you would prefer not to discuss something, that is totally okay too. Just let me know!
After we chat, I will talk with you a little bit about what I think may be going on from a musculoskeletal, movement, and/or behavioral (habits) standpoint. At this point, I usually pull out some images, a model of a pelvis, etc. and will talk with you about what normal anatomy and physiology looks like in the pelvis and about what I think may be happening with the problems you are experiencing. Then, I will let you know what I am recommending we examine to get a better idea of your function. This often includes:
A “Big picture” movement exam: I will watch you walk, stand, sit, and move in many different directions. I will look at how your spine moves (from your neck down), your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. I also look at your balance and preferred postures, and I’ll even watch how your breathe (yes, breathing really does matter!). While we do this, you’ll also let me know if any movements are challenging for you or lead to any pain, and this helps me understand how your body as a whole is moving.
Specific tests/movements:After the global movement screen, we may go through some specific tests. This can include tests to see how you transfer forces or control pressure through your pelvis by lifting a leg or moving in a certain way, tests to see how the nerves in your spine glide and move, or tests to see what structures are contributors to pain you may be experiencing.
Myofascial palpation: Next, we’ll see what tissues are tender or not moving well around your abdomen, pelvis, or elsewhere if we need to. This includes gently touching the muscles around the belly, hips, and legs to see if anything feels uncomfortable, and may include lifting and moving the skin and tissues under the skin to see where there may be restrictions in tissue movement.
Pelvic floor examination:After that, we will look more closely at the muscles of your pelvic floor. Because the muscles of the pelvic floor live inside the pelvis, the best way to examine them is by doing an internal vaginal or rectal examination. For this exam, you would undress from the waist down and lie down on a mat table, covered with a sheet. We don’t tend to use stirrups for our exams (which most people are grateful for!). We start by looking at the outside tissues. We’ll ask you to contract and relax your pelvic floor muscles, and gently bear down to see how your muscles move (Don’t worry if you’re not sure what to do, we can help teach you!). We may ask you to cough to see how the muscles move reflexively. Then, we often will lightly touch on the outside of the muscles to see if anything feels uncomfortable or sensitive to you. We may check how certain tissues move, if that applies to the problems you are experiencing. After that, we can examine the muscles in more detail by inserting one gloved and lubricated finger into the vaginal or rectal canal. We can then feel the muscles to see if they are tender or uncomfortable, assess the muscle strength and endurance, and assess muscle coordination. *NOTE: While an internal exam is a very valuable examination technique, some people do not feel quite ready for this, or would prefer not to have an internal exam. If that’s the case, be sure to let me (or your pelvic PT) know, and we can offer some other options. Also, remember that our exam should not be a painful experience for you. Your pelvic PT should tailor the examination to your needs, so that you leave feeling confident and comfortable, not flared-up and in pain.
After we finish the exam, we should have a clear picture of what areas we can address to work together to help you achieve your goals (whether your goals are to have less pain, stop leaking, start pooping, or something different all together!). So, our next step is to talk about our plan– what you can get started on today, and what our steps will be to help you reach the goal you want to reach. We also will talk about how often I am recommending you to come see me, and how long I think we might work together. Sometimes I’m really good at estimating this, but sometimes I’m wrong. We can adjust along the way if we need to.
I hope this helps you to feel more comfortable and more confident when coming in for pelvic PT! If you need help finding a skilled pelvic PT in your area, please check out this previous post.
Please let me know if you have questions at all I can help answer! Have a wonderful week!
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! ;-))
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.
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!
As an educator, one of my biggest rewards is working with students and clinicians as they learn and grow in the field of pelvic floor physical therapy. This past winter, I was fortunate to work with Amanda Bastien, SPT, a current 3rd year doctoral student at Emory University. Amanda is passionate about helping people, dedicated to learning, and truly just an awesome person to be around, and I am so grateful to have played a small role in her educational journey! Today, I am thrilled to introduce her to all of you! Amanda shares my fascination with the brain and particularly the role it can play when a person is experiencing persistent pain. I hope you all enjoy this incredible post from Amanda!
Have you ever been told your pain is “all in your head?” Unfortunately, this is often the experience of many people experiencing persistent pelvic pain. Interestingly enough, the brain itself is actually very involved in producing pain, particularly when a person has experienced pain for a long period of time. In this post, I’ll explain to you how someone can come to have pain that is ingrained in their brain, literally, and more importantly, what we can do to help them get better.
Our brains are incredible! They are constantly changing and adapting; every second your brain fine tunes connections between brain cells, called neurons, reflecting your everyday experiences. This works like a bunch of wires that can connect to one another in different pathways and can be re-routed. Another way to say this is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This process of learning and adapting with experiences is known as neuroplasticity or neural plasticity. It is a well-documented occurrence in humans and animals. If you’re interested in learning more, this is a great article that summarizes the principles underlying neuroplasticity.1
In the case of pain…. well, here’s where it gets a little complicated.
The brain has distinct physical areas that have been found to relate to different functions and parts of the body.
Those two spots in the middle that read “primary motor cortex” and “primary sensory cortex” relate to the control of body movements, and the interpretation of stimulus as sensations like hot, cold, sharp, or dull. By interpretation, I mean the brain uses this area to make sense of the signals it’s receiving from the rest of the body and decides what this feels like. These areas can be broken down by body structure, too.
In this next image, you’re looking at the brain like you’ve cut it down the middle, looking from the back of someone’s head to the front. This image illustrates the physical areas of the brain that correlate to specific limbs and body parts. This representation is known as a homunculus.
See how the hand and facial features look massive? That’s because we do a LOT with our hands, have delicate control of our facial expressions, and feel many textures with both. Thus, these areas need a lot of physical space in our brains. In this image, the pelvis takes up less space than other areas, but for people who pay a lot of attention to their pelvis, this area may be mapped differently, or not as well-defined. We know that the brain changes due to experiences, and ordinarily, it has a distinct physical map of structures. But what happens when that brain map is drawn differently with experiences like pain?
Studies suggest that over time, the brain undergoes changes related to long-lasting pain. If someone is often having to pay attention to an area that is painful, they may experience changes in how their brain maps that experience on a day-to-day basis. This varies from person to person, and we’re still learning how this happens. Here’s an example: in a recent study, people experiencing long-standing pelvic pain were found to have more connections in their brains than in those of a pain-free control group, among other findings. The greater the area of pain, the more brain changes were found.2 My point here is to provide you with an example of how the brain can undergo changes with pain that can help explain how strange and scary it can feel for some. Read on to find out how we can work to reverse this!
The process that makes pain occur is complex. It often starts with some injury, surgery, or other experience causing tissue stress. First, cells respond by alerting nerves in the tissues. Then, that signal moves to the spinal cord and the brain, also called the central nervous system. The brain weighs the threat of the stress; neurons communicate with each other throughout the brain, in order to compare the stressor to prior experiences, environments, and emotions. The brain, the commander-in-chief, decides if it is dangerous, and responds with a protective signal in the form of pain.
Pain is a great alarm to make you change what you’re doing and move away from a perceived danger. Over time, however, the brain can over-interpret tissue stress signals as dangerous. Imagine an amplifier getting turned up on each danger signal, although the threat is still the same. This is how tissue stress can eventually lead to overly sensitive pain, even after the tissues themselves are healed.3
Additionally, your brain attempts to protect the area by smudging its drawing of the sensory and motor maps in a process called cortical remapping. Meaning, neurons have fired so much in an area that they rewire and connections spread out. This may be apparent if pain becomes more diffuse, spreads, and is harder to pinpoint or describe. For example, pain starts at the perineum or the tailbone, but over time is felt in a larger area, like the hips, back, or abdomen. To better understand this, I highly recommend watching this video by David Butler from the NOI group.
He’s great, huh? I could listen to him talk all day!
Pain alarms us to protect us, sometimes even when there’s nothing there! After having a limb amputated, people may feel as though the limb is still present, and in pain. This is called phantom limb pain. The limb has changed, but the connections within the brain have not. However, over time the connections in the brain will re-route. I share this example to illustrate how the brain alone can create pain in an area. Pain does not equal tissue injury; the two can occur independently of one another.4 Pain signals can also be created or amplified by thoughts, emotions, or beliefs regarding an injury. Has your pain ever gotten worse when you were stressed?
There is also some older case evidence that describes how chronic pain and bladder dysfunction evolved for people after surgery, in a way that suggests this type of brain involvement.5Another case study describes a patient with phantom sensations of menstrual cramps following a total hysterectomy! 6
So, can we change the connections that have already re-mapped?
Yes!! The brain is ALWAYS changing, remember? There are clinicians who can help. Physicians have medications that target the central nervous system to influence how it functions. Psychologists and counselors can help people better understand their mental and emotional experiences as they relate to pain, and to work through these to promote health. Physical therapy provides graded exposure to stimuli such as movement or touch, in a therapeutic way that promotes brain changes and improved tolerance to those stimuli that are painful. This can result in a clearer, well-defined brain map and danger signals that are appropriate for the actual level of threat. Physical therapists also help people improve their strength and range of motion, so they can move more, hurt less, and stay strong when life throws heavy things at us! It is SO important to return to moving normally and getting back to living! Poor movement strategies can prolong pain and dysfunction, and this can turn a short-term stressor into long-lasting, sensitized pain. (See Jessica’s blog here: LINK)
Of course, with any kind of treatment, it also depends on the unique individual. Everyone has personal experiences associated with pain that can make treatment different for them. We are still learning about how neural plasticity occurs, but the brain DOES change. This is how we are all able to adapt to new environments and circumstances around us! Pain is our protective mechanism, but sometimes it can get out of hand. While tissue injury can elicit pain, the nervous system can become overly sensitized to stimulus and cause pain with no real danger. This perception can spread beyond the original problem areas, and this can occur from connections remapping in the brain and the spinal cord. For pelvic pain, treatment is often multidisciplinary, but should include a pelvic health physical therapist who can facilitate tissue healing, optimal movement, and who can utilize the principles of neural plasticity to promote brain changes and return to function.
Amanda Bastien is a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, currently completing her Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree, graduating in May 2018. Amanda has a strong interest in pelvic health, orthopedics, neuroscience and providing quality information and care to her patients.
Kutch, J. J., Ichesco, E., Hampson, J. P., et al. (2017). Brain signature and functional impact of centralized pain: a multidisciplinary approach to the study of chronic pelvic pain (MAPP) network study. PAIN, 158, 1979-1991.
Origoni, M., Maggiore, U. L. R., Salvatore, S., Candiani, M. (2014). Neurobiological mechanisms of pelvic pain. BioMed Research International, 2014, 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/903848
Flor, H., Elbert, T., Knecht, S. et al. (1995). Phantom -limb pain as a perceptual correlate of cortical reorganization following an arm amputation. Nature, 375, 482-484.
Zermann, D., Ishigooka, M., Doggweiler, R., Schmidt, R. (1998) Postoperative chronic pain and bladder dysfunction: Windup and neuronal plasticity – do we need a more neuroulogical approach in pelvic surgery? Urological Neurology and Urodynamics, 160, 102-105.