Guest Post: Rib cage position, breathing and your pelvic floor

I am thrilled today to have my colleague and friend, Seth Oberst, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS (that’s a lot of letters, right?!), guest blogging for me. I have known Seth for a few years, and have consistently been impressed with his expansive knowledge and passion for treating a wide range of patient populations (from men and women with chronic pain, to postpartum moms, and even to high level olympic athletes!) Recently, Seth started working with me at One on One in Vinings/Smyrna, which is super awesome because now we get to collaborate regularly in patient care!  Since Seth started with us, we have been co-treating several of my clients with pelvic pain, diastasis rectus, and even post-surgical problems, and Seth has a unique background and skill set which has been extremely valuable to my population (and in all reality, to me too!). If you live in the Atlanta area, I strongly recommend seeing Seth for any orthopedic or chronic pain problems you are having–he rocks! So, I asked Seth to guest blog for us today…and he’ll be talking about your diaphragm, rib cage position, and the impact of this on both the pelvis and the rest of the body! I hope you enjoy his post! ~ Jessica 

The muscles of the pelvic floor and the diaphragm (our primary muscle of breathing) are mirror images of each other. What one does so does the other. Hodges found that the pelvic floor has both postural and respiratory influences and there’s certainly a relationship between breathing difficulty and pelvic floor dysfunction. (JR note: We’ve chatted about this before, so if you need a refresher, check out this post) So one of the best ways we can improve pelvic floor dysfunction is improving the way we breathe and the position of our ribcage. Often times, we learn to breathe only in certain mechanical positions and over time and repetition (after all we breathe around 20,000 times per day), this becomes the “normal” breathing posture.

Clinically, the breathing posture I see most commonly is a flared ribcage position in which the ribs are protruding forward. This puts the diaphragm in a position where it cannot adequately descend during inhalation so instead it pulls the ribs forward upon breathing in. The pelvis mirrors this position such that it is tipped forward, causing the muscles of the pelvic floor to increase their tension. (JR note: We see this happen all the time in men and women with pelvic pain!) Normal human behavior involves alternating cycles of on and off, up and down, without thinking about it. However, with stress and injury we lose this harmony causing the ribs to stay flared and the pelvis to stay tilted. Ultimately this disrupts the synchrony of contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and pelvic floor, particularly when there is an asymmetry between the right and left sides (which there often is).

Rib Flare PRI

Rib PRI

Jessica has written extensively on a myriad of pelvic floor issues (this IS a pelvic health blog, after all) that can be caused by the altered control and position of the rib cage and pelvis that I described above. But, these same altered positions can cause trouble up and down the body. Here are a few ways:

  1. Shoulder problems: The ribcage is the resting place for the scapulae by forming a convex surface for the concave blades. With a flared, overextended spine and ribs the shoulder blades do not sit securely on their foundation. This is a main culprit for scapular winging (something you will often see at the local gym) because the muscles that control the scapulae are not positioned effectively. And a poorly positioned scapula leads to excessive forces on the shoulder joint itself often causing pain when lifting overhead.
  2. Back pain: When stuck in a constant state of extension (ribs flared), muscles of the back and hips are not in a strong position to control the spine subjecting the back to higher than normal forces repeatedly over time. This often begins to manifest with tight, toned-up backs that you can’t seem to loosen with traditional “stretches”.
  3. Hip impingement: With the pelvis tilted forward, the femurs run into the pelvis more easily when squatting, running, etc. By changing the way we control the pelvis (and by association the rib cage), we can create more space for the hip in the socket decreasing the symptoms of hip impingement (pinching, grinding sensation in groin/anterior hip). For more on finding the proper squat stance to reduce impingement, read this.
  1. Knee problems: An inability to effectively control the rib cage and pelvis together causes increased shearing forces to the knee joint as evidenced in this study. Furthermore, when we only learn to breathe in certain positions, it reduces our ability to adapt to the environment and move variably increasing our risk for injury.
  2. Foot/ankle: The foot and pelvis share some real estate in the brain and we typically see a connection between foot control and pelvic control. So if the pelvis is stuck in one position and cannot rotate to adapt, the foot/ankle complex is also negatively affected.

So, what can we do about this? One of the most important things we can do is learn to expand the ribcage in all directions instead of just in the front of the chest. This allows better alignment by keeping the ribs down instead of sacrificing position with every breath in. Here are few ideas to help bring the rib cage down over the pelvis and improve expansion. These are by no means complete:

**JR Note: These are great movements, but may not be appropriate for every person, especially if a person has pelvic pain and is at an early stage of treatment (or hasn’t been treated yet in physical therapy). For most clients, these exercises are ones that people can be progressed toward, however, make sure to consult with your physical therapist to help determine which movements will be most helpful for you! If you begin a movement, and it feels threatening/harmful to you or causes you to guard your muscles, it may not be the best movement for you at the time. 

**JR Note: This squat exercise is very similar to one we use for men and women with pelvic pain to facilitate a better resting state of the pelvic floor. It’s wonderful–but it does lead to a maximally lengthened pelvic floor, which can be uncomfortable sometimes for men and women who may have significant tenderness/dysfunction in the pelvic floor (like occurs in men and women with pelvic pain in the earliest stages of treatment).

Here’s another one I use often from Quinn Henoch, DPT:

Our ability to maintain a synchronous relationship between the rib cage and pelvis, predominantly thru breathing and postural control, will help regulate the neuromuscular system and ultimately distribute forces throughout the system. And a balanced system is a resilient and efficient one.

Seth-Oberst

Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT is a colleague of Jessica’s at One on One Physical Therapy in Atlanta, GA. He works with a diverse population of clients from those with chronic pain and fatigue to competitive amateur, CrossFit, professional, and Olympic athletes. Dr. Oberst specializes in optimizing movement and behavior to reduce dysfunction and improve resiliency, adaptability, and self-regulation.

 

For more from Seth check out his website and follow him on Twitter at @SethOberstDPT

Painful scars? Yes, you can do something about it!

 

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I can’t help it. Every time I think scar, I think… Scar (and yes, I used to have a much better picture of Scar from The Lion King for you…but I had to remove it in my attempt to make sure I’m not violating anyone’s copyright laws!)  I was going to try to think of some funny way to explain why scars and Scar are the same… but I can’t… I relate it to the 50,000 times I have watched The Lion King... so I’ll leave it at that.

Scars can be a big pain though– literally! I have treated women who even after several years cannot tolerate pressure on a c-section scar. Men who have nice huge abdominal scars that ultimately contribute to problems with constipation. And moms who have discomfort near their perineal tears every time they have sexual intercourse.  The truth is that scar tissue is often something skilled physical therapists will evaluate and treat as part of a comprehensive program in men and women with pelvic floor dysfunction(and really, with any type of problem!). And the best part– treating scar tissue can make HUGE differences!

So, what is a scar? 

When there is an initial injury (and yes, a surgical incision is an “injury”), the body goes through three phases of healing: Inflamation, Proliferation and Remodeling. Through this process, the body creates scarring to close up the initial injury. Scars are composed of a fibrous protein (collagen) which is the same type of tissue that is in the tissue the body is repairing (i.e. skin, etc).  The difference, however, is that scars are not quite organized the same way as the tissues they replace, and they don’t really do the job quite as well. (i.e. scars are much more permeable to UV rays than skin is). Scars can form in all tissues of the body– even the heart forms scar tissue after someone has a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

How do scars lead to problems? 

After the inflammation and proliferation stage of healing, comes the remodeling. This stage can take months to years! During this time, the body is slowly adapting and changing the scar to the stresses on the tissue. Have you ever noticed that some scars initially are pink and raised and then over time become light/white and flat? That’s remodeling.  Ultimately, there are a few major reasons why a person might develop pain from a scar:

  • Adhesions: Scars are not super selective when it comes to tissues they adhere to. So, sometimes, scars will adhere to lots of tissues around them and this pull can lead to discomfort.
  • Sensitivity: Scars can become very sensitive for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, small nerves can be pulled on by the scar which can lead to irritation. Other times, people themselves will have a significant amount of fear related to the scar. This fear, can often make people avoid touching the scar, and that, along with what we know about how our brain processes fear and pain (See this post, this one, and this one), can lead to a brain that is veeerrrryyy sensitive to the scar. Along with this, muscles near scars can become tender and sensitive. This can occur due to the scar pulling on the muscle or due to the sensitive nerves in the area.
  • Weakness/Poor Muscle firing: So, we know that when our tissues are cut, the muscles around the tissues are inhibited (have you ever seen someone after a knee replacement? It can be quite a bit of work to get those muscles to fire immediately after surgery). That’s why it’s important to get the right muscles firing and moving once a person is safely healed. Moving the right muscles improves blood flow too which promotes healing.
  • Changing Movement: Painful scarring can lead to altered movement. We can especially see this with postural changes after c-sections or other abdominal surgeries, but movement patterns can change with scars all around the body. We also know that abnormal movement patterns over time can lead to dysfunction and pain.

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What can we do about it? 

There are several ways physical therapists can help decrease pain from scars. Can we actually break-up/melt/eliminate scar tissue? I don’t really think so– honestly, scars are made from strong material and truly breaking up the scar is typically something that has to be done surgically– but most of the time, that is not necessary. We can decrease pain from scars by:

  • Improving the mobility of the scar: Gentle techniques to massage the scar and the tissues around the scar can facilitate blood flow to the area and decrease some of the pulling on the tissues around it. There is a thought as well that scar tissue massage can disrupt the fibrotic tissue and improve pliability of the scar (basically, help the scar organize itself a little better, and ultimately move better), and help to promote decreased adhesions of the scar to the tissues around it. Unfortunately, there really is not a lot of great research out there about scar tissue massage. However, this review published in 2012 found that 90% of people with post-surgical scars who were treated by scar massage saw an improvement in either the appearance of the scar or their overall function–which is very promising!
  • Desensitizing the scar and the nervous system: This is where I think we can make huge changes–both by improving someone’s worries/fears about the scar (calming the nervous system) and by slowly desensitizing the scar and the skin around the scar to touch. This is a slow process, but over time, many people who initially can barely tolerate pressure on the scar can be able to easily touch and move the scar without discomfort.
  • Promoting movement: So, we talked about how muscles can become inhibited or tender after a surgery? Part of improving scar tissue related pain is helping the muscles around the scar move well and learn to fire again. This can include some soft tissue treatment to the muscles to reduce the tenderness of the muscles, but ultimately leads to learning to use the muscles again in a variety of movement patterns. Movement is amazing for the body and can not only improve blood flow, but decrease pain too!

Wanna learn more? 

Several of my colleagues have written wonderful information about scar tissue! Check out this great, article and free handout by Kathe Wallace, PT on abdominal scar massage! My colleagues at the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center have also written a few blogs on scars, which you can find here and here.

Have a great rest of your week!

~ Jessica

Pelvic Floor Problems in the Adult Athlete: Pelvic Floor Muscle-related Pain

I love the changes I’ve seen in our culture over the past 10 or so years. Healthy foods? Regular exercise? Joining gyms, boxes, studios, programs? This has become the norm for many people—and, that is so awesome! I love to see people being more active, taking responsibility for their health, and really striving to care for their bodies throughout their lifespans.

However, with this change and shift toward more activity, I have started seeing some pelvic problems become more common. And I don’t blame the exercise—I really don’t! I will stand firm in my belief that there is no such thing as a bad exercise—but all exercises require proper form and performance.  Sometimes when we consistently perform exercises that we may not be able to do correctly, problems can creep in.  I don’t see this to scare anyone off from exercises– please don’t think I mean that! But I think it is important to remember that Pain is never normal. Bladder leakage? Bowel problems? Sexual pain? Also never normal. 

So, the next two posts are going to address two of the major things I am treating regularly in higher level athletes. Today we are going to talk about Pelvic floor muscle pain, and next week I will post about stress incontinence. Let’s get started.

Pelvic floor muscle-related pain

What is it? This problem occurs when the muscle of the pelvic floor become tender, overactive or hypervigilant(basically contracting with too much intensity to guard/protect the pelvis) Often when this happens, people will feel pain in the lower abdomen, groin, hip, buttock or low back—or may feel actual vaginal/rectal pain. The pain may also be associated with changes in bladder function (like increased urinary frequency, urgency or leakage), bowel function (like constipation or difficulty emptying bowels) or sexual function (typically pain or discomfort during intercourse.) However, sometimes people will experience pain without any of these other symptoms at all.

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Image attributed to Open Stax College. CC https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1115_Muscles_of_the_Pelvic_Floor.jpg

Why does this happen? This is the kicker–We don’t always know exactly why. However, there are some common reasons why the pelvic floor muscles might begin responding this way. First, we have to remember that the pelvic floor is just one part of a team of muscles that work together to modulate pressure within the abdomen and pelvis. So, the diaphragm, transverse abdominis, multifidus and pelvic floor work together to control intra-abdominal pressure, and pre-activate to support the spine and pelvis during movement.

Dysfunction in any one of these muscles can lead to problems with others. For example, I often find tender, irritated muscles in women after childbirth, especially those who have a diastasis rectus (separation at midline between the two rectus abdominis muscles). This separation impacts the stability at the abdominal wall, generally leading to gripping of the internal and external oblique muscles, alterations in ability to breathe optimally, and thus gripping at the pelvic floor muscles. We see a similar pattern occur in men and women with hypermobility. We can also see dysfunction creep in as a motor adaptation when someone has a history of low back, hip, neck, knee or other musculoskeletal problems.

In terms of athletes in particular (and yes, this includes those of you doing Crossfit, Barre, personal training, yoga, pilates, and other regular exercise— YOU are an athlete J), I often find that when a person lacks dynamic stability, the pelvic floor will compensate to give that stability. If a person is then doing regular exercise and does not have the adequate control, form, or force modulation to perform, these compensations become more prevalent and can then lead to pain.

What can you do about it? If you think your pelvic floor may be a contributor to pain, the first step is to seek evaluation. It can be helpful to initially seek a medical evaluation to rule out other potential pain contributors (ovarian cysts, inguinal hernias, etc.). Then, I do strongly recommend seeking an evaluation by a skilled physical therapist with advanced training in pelvic health. If you are living in a state that allows self-referral to physical therapy (like Georgia!), you can see a physical therapist without a physician referral; however, if in doubt, check with your local physical therapy office.

Treatment for pelvic floor related pain in athletes typically focuses initially on re-establishing the optimal function of the pelvic floor muscles within the team of muscles we spoke about earlier. This is done by teaching the patient how to relax the pelvic floor muscles, use the amazing diaphragm in the proper coordination with the pelvic floor and abdominals, and often includes manual therapy to help reduce muscle tenderness and/or improve connective tissue or neural mobility around the pelvis. A skilled pelvic floor PT will not only assess the pelvic floor muscles, but will examine you from a whole-body perspective—watching you move in various motions, looking at your hips/back/knees/ankles and assessing the soft tissues that could be contributors to your symptoms. This allows us to not only identify which tissues are contributing to the pain you experience, but also to identify any abnormal movement patterns which could be leading to the compensation in the first place.

Once the pelvic floor muscles are no longer hypervigilant/tender/overactive, we focus on restoring healthy movement. This includes integrating the pelvic floor and its team within those movements—the right way!  Typically at this point, we progress the athlete to his or her specific movements—whether that is Olympic lifting, squats, or a yoga warrior series—teaching the athlete proper form all while integrating the right muscle firing patterns to adequately stabilize.

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Do I have to stop exercising while in PT? This is always a tough one. I totally recognize that many adult athletes love their work-out routines and benefit so much by them—physically, socially, and emotionally. Sometimes there will be particular exercises that are aggravating symptoms or worsening the problems the person is experiencing. In those cases, I often will recommend holding off on those movements for a short time period. While holding off on some exercises, we often can still work together to find exercises and movements that are appropriate and totally acceptable to keep performing! I know this period can be frustrating for patients as it is difficult to take a break from something you love, but I promise, it’s short! Our goal ultimately is to get people back to the activities they love as quickly and safely as we can!

If you are having pelvic pain during exercise, and you live in the Atlanta area, I would LOVE to see you! Feel free to contact me or call my office for more information!

I always love to hear from you! Please let me know if you have any questions or feel free to chime in if I left something out! Happy Thursday!

~Jessica

What every female runner should know postpartum

I normally am not huge into re-blogging other people’s blogs–simply because I want my blog to mostly be filled with original thoughts, articles, etc…written by, well, me. BUT, when I read this blog by my colleague, Kate Mihevc Edwards, published on The Happiest Doula, I just had to. 

I have always loved running–ever since running cross-country and track & field in high school. I hope to run as long as I can–which is why I am passionate about women (& men!) having the ability to return to running and other forms of exercise if they have that desire. My love of running and love of all things related to pelvic floor health often is paired together (eg. this post on running and the pelvic floor). I actually planned on writing a post this week specifically on returning to running after a baby…but guess what? Kate did it for me! For those of you who don’t know, Kate is an amazing clinician who works for Back 2 Motion Physical Therapy (a sister clinic of mine) across town in Atlanta. She specializes in runners and triathletes, and is VERY good at what she does. Soooo, I hope you enjoy her awesome post: 

I am a mom, a runner and a triathlete. I have the benefit of being a physical therapist (PT) that specializes in treating runners and triathletes and I work in an office with two knowledgeable pelvic health PTs. My son just turned one and I, too, am still re-learning my body. Over and over I have heard friends and patients talk about wearing a pad when they run because of leaking or getting a stress fracture while they are breastfeeding. I hear about how exhausted they are how hard they are working to get their abs back to pre-pregnancy form.

In 2013, Running USA reported that female runners are at an all time high with 8.6 million female race finishers nationwide and females accounting for 56% of all race finishers. With over 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, I wonder how many of these women have had babies and how many have had questions about how to return to running after their babies.

Whether you were a running before you had a baby or not, running is an attractive exercise option for moms. It is much easier to lace up your shoes run out the door than going to a gym. For me, running is a gift; it allows me a few minutes of alone time as well as some needed freedom by taking my son with me on the run. A recent study even found that women who ran while breastfeeding had a significantly lower incidence of postpartum depression.*

It is difficult to find information or resources for women when we return to running or start running postpartum. Most women have no idea where to start, what to expect, how their body should feel and what is/isn’t normal. By addressing these issues and educating ourselves and others about how our bodies change during the months after childbirth, we can significantly reduce the potential for injury.

Things I’ve learned along my journey back to running

(Click to read the rest of Kate’s fantastic blog post)