A few weeks ago, I connected with Noa Fleischaker, the founder of Tight Lipped. This organization started as a podcast in 2019, and has grown to reach over 3000 people from 58 countries around the world. Tight Lipped is all about supporting people who have been struggling with vulvovaginal pain conditions– problems like vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, pelvic pain, painful sex, and more. They share stories to build community, normalize often very private problems, and advocate for better care. They recently published their first Zine, “Opening Up,” and it is a beautiful compilation of art and stories from people who have dealt with vulvovaginal pain conditions. I received my copy last week, and it is in our waiting room as I type this!
I hope you enjoy this interview and connect with Noa’s message! If you would like to support the work of Tight Lipped, please visit their website! They also have events, meet-ups (with one coming up this week!!), workshops, and book clubs! So check it out and connect with this amazing group!
You all know by now that I’m fairly nerdy. I love reading research articles, trying to understand complex topics, and everything about learning. Honestly, I think that is why I love pelvic health so much! The pelvis is so complicated! There’s so much to know, and the more I learn, the more I truly realize how much more there is to know! As an anatomy nerd, you know I have favorite muscles. I’ve written about the respiratory diaphragm, who is one of my most favorites, but I haven’t spent much time introducing you to my other love~ the obturator internus!
Meet the Obturator Internus
The Obturator Internus (Or OI, as they are known by friends) is a muscle that lives inside your pelvis in the obturator foramen and attaches to the hip via the greater trochanter. You can see it here:
The OI has several major functions for the body. First, it is a deep hip external rotator, and has shown to be active during the movements of hip extension, external rotation and abduction. In fact, this research showed that it was the first muscle to turn on in these motions (which I theorize could be part of it’s connection to the pelvic floor muscles and the anticipatory role the pelvic floor has in movement, pressure management and postural stability). My theory on this makes sense when we look at some of the research on the involvement of the OI in hip stability. This excellent article identifies the obturator internus & externus, quadratus femoris, and gemelli as important synergistic muscles that work together to modulate the position of the femoral head in the acetabulum during movement. This is particularly cool because in many ways, this function is very similar to the pelvic floor muscles! The authors suggest a dynamic stabilizing role for these muscles, making subtle alterations in force to control the femoral head position.
This study also recognizes the stabilizing role the OI can play, particularly when it works as a team with the other deep hip rotators. The authors here highlight that the obturator internus, obturator externus, superior & inferior gemelli (who I affectionately call the gemelli brothers) are essentially fused. And this fusion, actually leads to a decent cross-sectional area and ability for force generation. The orientation of the fibers adds further credence to the view that these muscles are crucial to hip stability.
The OI shares fascial connections and attachments with the pelvic floor muscles, which makes it an even more unique muscle. The iliococcygeus attaches to the arcus tendoneus linea alba, a fascial line that is also an attachment of the obturator internus. Additionally, the pubococcygeus and OI are fascially connected around the pubic bone, and the fascia around the bladder and urethra also is connected to the OI. What does this mean? It means that the OI can be impacted by what happens at the pelvic floor and can impact what happens at the pelvic floor. And research tends to show this. This study showed that the vast majority of people with pelvic girdle pain have obturator internus tenderness. This study found that most people with chronic pelvic pain have obturator internus tenderness with palpation. And here’s another study that found that 45% of people with pelvic pain had tenderness at the obturator internus. Another study found that in people with lumbopelvic pain, experiencing urinary urgency, and central sensitization made them 2x more likely to have concurrent pelvic floor and OI involvement.
Finding the Obturator Internus
One of the cool things about the OI is that it is a muscle that can be palpated both internally via the vagina or rectum, and also externally. The OI is palpated internally with an examining finger angling out toward the hip. You can see the palpation here on my lovely pelvic model.
The OI can also be palpated by examining medial to the ischial tuberosity, then angling in toward the obturator foramen. You can see where palpation would be happening here.
Treating the Obturator Internus
If you think your Obturator Internus is involved in the pain or pelvic floor problems you’re experiencing, the first step is to have it examined. Your PT can palpate these muscles as described above. The muscles should be soft and move well, so they should not be sensitive or painful to touch. If they are, they could potentially be involved in the pelvic problems you are experiencing.
From a treatment standpoint, we can address the OI by first improving the mobility via gentle manual therapy, and then improving the overall hip stability (retraining the anticipatory function through the relationship between the pelvic floor & OI). It usually isn’t the “sole” problem happening. But including it within your treatment can be key to helping you get better!
May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month, so I thought it was only fitting to write something about pelvic pain before the month is over. Pelvic pain impacts so many people, in fact, the International Pelvic Pain Society estimates that over 25 million women suffer from chronic pelvic pain. While the number is generally lower in men, some studies estimate that around 1 in 10 men experience chronic pelvic pain (often termed chronic prostatitis).
Next week, my clinic is officially re-opening our doors for in-person sessions, after operating completely virtually for the past 2.5 months! During this time, I tried to stay as connected to our patients as I could, and sent out a newsletter each week full of pelvic health tidbits. One of the new things I created was a daily movement sequence for pelvic pain, and I wanted to share it with all of you here!
Before we get started, you should know a few things about pelvic pain. First, each person with pelvic pain is a unique entity. So, while this sequence can feel lovely for many people with pelvic pain, some may not be quite ready for it. For others, they may find that doing it actually increases their pain (clearly, not our goal). For rehabilitation for a person with pelvic pain, it is very important that exercises, movements and activities are done at a threshold that does not increase or aggravate pain or discomfort. This is, as we have spoken about very often, because we want to create positive movement neurotags for the brain. Basically, we don’t want your brain to think that movement is bad or dangerous (because as we all know, it should not be bad or dangerous!). If we do movements that increase our discomfort and make us feel worse, the brain can build a connection between moving that way and bad/pain feelings. Instead, we like to move at a threshold where the body does not guard or protect by pain. So, why am I telling you this? Because, if you start doing these movements and your symptoms worsen, or it doesn’t feel therapeutic to you, you need to stop doing it and see a pelvic floor therapist who can evaluate you comprehensively and help you develop a specific movement plan that IS therapeutic to YOU. And lastly, remember that anything on this blog is not in any way a replacement of in-person care. You need to consult with your interdisciplinary team (your physician, PT, etc!) to determine the best approach for your health! (And if you’re not sure, schedule a virtual consult with a member of my team to help figure out where to go next!)
Daily Movement Sequence for Pelvic Pain
So, let’s break down this sequence.
If I could give any person with pelvic floor problems a single exercise to do, it would be this. The breath is SO powerful, and sync’d with the pelvic floor. For diaphragmatic breathing, you want your breath to move into your belly, expand your ribcage in all directions, then lift your chest. A misconception of diaphragmatic breathing is that the chest should not move at all, and this is FALSE. The chest should lift–but–so should the ribcage and the abdomen. You can do this in sitting or lying down. As you inhale, aim to lengthen and relax your pelvic floor muscles, then exhale, allowing your muscles to return to baseline. Start your sequence with 2-5 minutes of this breathing. (and toss in some focused relaxation of each part of your body while you’re doing it!)
Happy Baby or “the Frog”
This one is a key movement for anyone with pelvic pain! To perform this, lie on your back and bring your knees up to your chest. Reach your arms through your legs to grab your lower shins, support your legs using your arms, and allow your knees to drop open. You can alternatively hold your legs at your thighs, depending on your comfort and your hip mobility. From here, aim to let go of muscle tension. Then, take slow breaths, directing your breath to lengthen and open your pelvic floor muscles. This is a great position for relaxation and lengthening of the pelvic floor!
This is a nice movement to warm up your spine and practice using small amounts of tension to perform a graded movement (you know I love my slow movements!) For this exercise, you will lie on your back with your knees bent. Then inhale in to prepare, exhale and slowly begin to roll up off the mat, lifting your tailbone, then sacrum, then low back, then mid back, then shoulder area. At the end of your exhale, slowly inhale, reversing the movement. You can repeat this 5-15 times, and do 1-3 sets. (Vary this based on what feels healthy and helpful to you!). Sometimes people get back pain when they do this (usually their back muscles are trying to do the job of the glutes). So, if this happens, try to bring your feet closer to your buttocks, and press through your feet while you are lifting. If it still happens, stop the exercise, and talk to your physical therapist.
Reach and Roll
I love this exercise for improving mobility of the upper back (thoracic spine). For this exercise, lie on your side with your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees, arms stacked in front of you at shoulder level. Inhale, reaching your top arm forward, exhale, and slowly roll your hand across your chest, opening to the opposite side. Keep your hips stacked so you don’t rotate through your low back. Pause here and inhale in, letting your ribcage expand, then exhale letting the hand glide across your chest to meet the opposite hand again. Repeat this movement 5-10 times on each side (You can do a few sets if you would like!)
So, this is another one of my top exercises. I love the cat-cow as it promotes segmental mobility of the lumbar and thoracic spine into flexion and extension. It is another great movement to encourage minimal tension, and coordination of breath, so it’s a big favorite for people with pelvic pain. To do this, get into a quadruped position (hands and knees, with hands aligned under shoulder and knees aligned under hips) Inhale, allowing your tailbone to come up and your back to dip down, head looking up. Exhale, dropping your head down, rolling your back up and tucking your tailbone. Perform this movements slowly, using small amounts of tension. Repeat this 10-15 times, 2 sets. You can alternate each set with child’s pose, listed below.
Child’s Pose (Wide-Kneed)
Child’s pose is a beautiful exercise that also encourages opening and lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. It is nicely performed between sets of Cat-Cow. I like to modify this slightly by bringing the knees into a wide position to further encourage relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles. To perform this, begin in the quadruped (hands/knees) position as above. Open the knees into a wider position, keeping your feet together. Drop your pelvis back toward your feet, reaching your arms forward and relaxing down toward the mat. You can use a pillow (or 2 pillows!) to support your trunk and decrease how deep your child’s pose goes. Hold this position (and make sure you are totally comfortable!) for 60-90 seconds, breathing in long, slow breaths, encouraging lengthening and opening of your pelvic floor. Repeat this 2 times, preferably, interspersed with the Cat-Cow exercise.
And there you have it. My daily sequence for people with pelvic pain to get some movement in!
There are so many other great exercises for people with pelvic pain! Do you have any favorites I didn’t include in this sequence? Any movement challenges you want help solving? Let me know!
If you would have told me two weeks ago that I would have closed the doors to my clinic, Southern Pelvic Health, a week later, and shifted my practice to a virtual one, I would not have believed you. Maybe I was naive (yes, I probably was), but this change came quick to me. It almost happened overnight. And, here we are. I am moving into my second week of working with my patients online. While for many, that seems incredibly scary, I actually think that shifting to an online platform for a while is going to do a lot of good.
Last week, I worked with a few other colleagues to host a webinar on bringing pelvic health online– basically, how do pelvic floor PTs treat most effectively without actually touching their patients? It was a quick production–one built out of necessity–and it sold out in 24 hours because rehab professionals everywhere are trying to figure out how we can still be there for our patients and help them get better during this time. (For my colleagues out there, if you missed it, it’s still available as an on-demand purchase!) I brought together 5 experts from various corners of the country and the world, and we spoke for nearly 2 hours about how we assess the pelvic floor, evaluate patients, and actually help patients get better in a virtual setting. It was full of creative ideas, and also challenged some of the current practice patterns. As you know, I work hard to always question my own practice–learn more–do better– and I’m excited to see what this next period of time does for me as I learn to better and more effectively treat my patients, to be creative with self-care treatments and home strategies, and to use movement to help patients move when my hands are unable to. I will share what I learn with you here, of course.
Pelvic PTs are not the only professionals taking their skills online! Last week, my daughter and I joined a “Frozen Sing-A-long” through a local princess parties company. I have been thrilled to see some incredible resources for people with pelvic floor dysfunction hop online, and I am excited to share some of those with you today!
So, what can you join virtually this week?
Yoga for Pelvic Health
My dear friend and colleague, Patty Schmidt with PLS Yoga, is incredible and specializes in therapeutic yoga for pelvic floor dysfunction. She is bringing several awesome classes online! AND, they are cheap– $15 per class (which honestly, is a HUGE value for the expertise she brings!) So, I do hope you’ll join in:
Gentle Yoga (Via Vista Yoga)– this really could be great for anyone with persistent pain, I think!: Tuesday, March 24th at 12p.m., Thursday, March 26th at 10 a.m.
Patty also is teaching private sessions virtually at $30 for a 30-minute session. This is a steal, believe me!
I also need to share with you all of the FREE yoga resources through another friend and colleague, Shelly Prosko. Shelly has this incredible library of Yoga options for pelvic health, all available right here.
I hope you are able to partake of these awesome resources. Remember, we are in this together my friends! I’ll leave you with a quote from a much-loved movie in my house, Frozen II, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” Let’s all try to do the next right thing amidst this craziness!
I am super excited! I am hosting Dr. Andrew Goldstein at my NEW CLINIC for a one-day intensive course on Vulvar Dermatology on Saturday, November 2nd!!! This course is open to PTs, MDs, PAs, and NPs, and should be absolutely epic!!
Dr. Goldstein is known internationally as a leader in the treatment of vulvar pain disorders, and is very well-published on the topic. It should be an incredible day of learning, and I can’t wait to show you all my new space!!
I hope you will join me for this important class! Pelvic PTs and other HCPs- let’s always keep learning!
Last week, one of my favorite things to happen in the clinic happened again. A sweet patient I had been working with over the past few months came in to her session, and as soon as we closed the door, she exclaimed, “We had sex and it didn’t hurt!” As a pelvic PT, there is nothing better than sharing in the joy of the successes of your patients. Treating sexual pain is close to my heart, particularly because this was one of the reasons I became a pelvic PT to begin with. “Treating Sexual Pain” was actually the focus topic for my small group mentoring program this month, so I thought it would be fitting to highlight a common treatment tool/strategy used in pelvic PT to help people experiencing painful penetration.
What are vaginal trainers?
Vaginal trainers are tools used to help to desensitize the muscles and tissues of the canal. They are often helpful when a person is wanting to participate in penetration activities, and is having difficulty doing so due to pain. Vaginismus is a particular diagnosis that refers to painful vaginal penetration due to muscle spasm. Women experiencing vaginimus in particular can be very good candidates for this type of treatment program. That being said, trainers can also be helpful for people with pelvic pain in performing self-manual treatment to the pelvic floor muscles, or for other vulvar pain conditions. Trainers also come in rectal variations, and some patients benefit from these as well depending on their primary complaints and goals.
Trainers generally come in graded sizes, often ranging from very small (think pinky finger) to large. There are several different companies that make trainers, and I’ll share a few of the different types here:
Silicone Dilators/Trainers: These are smooth silicone, and bend and move very easily, so they are what I consider to be top-of-the-line trainers. Soul Source and Intimate Rose are two companies that sell these trainers. Both are great, but I do really like how smooth and soft the intimate rose dilators are. These are a little pricey, so range from $18-50 per trainer $80-200 for a set. (As an aside, Intimate Rose was actually designed by a pelvic PT, Amanda Olson, DPT, PRPC. Amanda has excellent resources on her website, including this great video providing a breathing exercise for pelvic pain)
Plastic Dilators/Trainers: These are hard plastic, so they do not move and bend the way silicone trainers do. However, they do tend to be on the cheaper side. Vaginismus.com sells a trainer set including 6 sizes with a handle for about $45. The Berman Vibrating Set includes 4 sizes and often sells on amazon for less than $25. Syracuse Medical also makes a set without handles that is solid plastic, and those trainers are sold individually ($10-20 each) or as a set ($45-80).
How do you decide which to pick?
Well, it depends on a lot of things. Some of my patients prefer to go the cheapest route possible, so for them, it makes sense to get the $25 Berman set off of amazon or the $45 Vaginismus.com set. For others, they really like the softness and bendiness of the silicone sets, so they feel comfortable spending a little more for that type of set. Some sets come with varying sizes, so it is important to pick one that has the sizes you (or your patient) needs to accomplish their treatment goals. Usually, I sit down with my patients, show them a few different sets, then allow them to pick the set they feel the most comfortable with.
Wait…Trainer or Dilator? What’s in a name?
So, you’ll see these terms used interchangeably quite a bit, but honestly, I think the name really does matter. The term “dilator” never really settled well with me…because…well…dilation is a fairly strong word. Dilation refers to passive opening. I think pupil dilation. I think cervical dilation (although one could argue that is not totally passive!). Honestly, dilation is not what we are aiming for when it comes to the pelvic floor muscles. Trainer on the other hand, is an active term. It requires participation, focus, involvement. It is not a passive process, but rather, is an active journey. And that, my friends, is what utilizing trainers to improve penetration should be.
Getting started with trainers
A word of advice- please do not try this on your own. I have had so many patients who become discouraged, sore, or get worse from using trainers without the guidance of a pelvic PT. If you are struggling with sexual pain, and you would like to try trainers, please please please make an appointment with a pelvic PT who can evaluate you and guide you in this process.
Once my patients purchase their trainer sets, I have them bring the trainers to the clinic. We then will use them together in the clinic before they begin using them as part of their home program. I have a few rules when it comes to trainers:
We are gently introducing a new stimulus to the vagina; therefore, we do not want to do anything that leads to the body guarding and protecting by pain. So, when people use trainers, all discomfort should be 2/10 or less, and should reduce while we are using the trainer. (Note: Some very well-intending clinicians will give advice to “insert the largest dilator you can tolerate and leave it there for 10-15 min.” Tolerate is a very strong word, and I find this approach tends to lead to a lot of pain as well as fear and anxiety associated with the treatment.)
We cap out at 10-15 minutes. I encourage patients to set a timer when they start, and whenever that timer ends, to go ahead and end their session. This keeps the session reasonable in time commitment, and also avoids over-treating the area.
We avoid setting “goals” for the sessions or the week. The goal of using trainers is to gently provide graded exposure to the muscles and the tissues, to allow relaxation and opening without anything being threatening or painful. Our muscles are impacted by many different things, so many patients will find that the size of trainer they use or the level of insertion that happens can vary based on the day, week, etc. So, for this reason, we avoid setting a goal to accomplish, but rather, just aim to spend time focused on breathing, relaxation, opening, and gentle desensitization.
So, how do we use the trainers?
My approach to using trainers is strongly influenced by my friend and mentor, Darla Cathcart, PT, DPT, WCS, CLT. Darla was my clinical instructor back when I was getting my doctorate 10 years ago, and her approach to using trainers is gentle, progressive, and based in our understandings of muscles and neuroscience. (As an aside, Darla recently started teaching for H&W and I could not be more excited!! We taught our first class together a few months ago, and we will be teaching together again in 2019!! She is the absolute best, and is actually currently doing her PhD research on women with vaginismus. I’ll try to share more as she gives permission to do so in the future!)
Back to trainers, I encourage people to start with the smallest trainer (or for some, I may recommend a different size based on what I noticed with the exam). First, I encourage creating a comfortable environment to use the trainers– this means calm lighting, comfortable space, pillows to support legs and torso so that muscles can relax, and sometimes even a nice candle or soft music. We begin with placing the smallest dilator at the opening of the vagina, then slowly insert until the person feels discomfort (2-3/10) or guarding. When this happens, we stop moving, and they take slow long breaths focusing on relaxing and opening the pelvic floor muscles. They can then gently (like with 25% force) contract and relax the pelvic floor muscles, aiming to completely let go and rest the muscles. If the tenderness/guarding they felt resolves, they continue to slowly insert the trainer and repeat this process until the trainer is completely inserted. If at any point the discomfort does not reduce, we then will back the trainer out a little bit and rest/breathe there for a minute, then try again. If it still does not reduce, then the body is giving a cue that it is ready to take a break from trainers, and we go ahead and stop the session.
Once the trainer is completely inserted, we add movement. This can include turning the trainer side-to-side, or pressing it right, left or down. We avoid turning or pressing the dilator toward the pubic bone as the bladder and urethra live there, and they don’t generally like being mashed on. We can also move the trainer slowly in and out, stopping again during this process if anything is uncomfortable and repeating the steps above.
One that size trainer is completely comfortable, we move on to the next size and repeat the process. This continues until the 10-15 minute session ends, and then wherever we are, we stop for the day. We can add modifications in to trainer sessions, and this will depend on the particular patient. Sometimes this includes partner involvement with trainers or it can include visualizations or imagery to aid in the process.
With this slow, graded, and gentle approach, I find that most patients can do very well and this can be an excellent treatment to help them achieve their goals! I hope this was helpful in better understanding an approach to this treatment! If you are a patient and think you may benefit from using this approach, I would strongly recommend discussing this with your physician and seeking out a pelvic PT to help you guide the process!
If you are a pelvic PT, feel free to share any additional tips or recommendations you have for trainers in the comments below!
Exercise has so many incredible benefits for overcoming pain, optimizing cardiovascular health, and facilitating psychological well-being. Unfortunately, for many struggling with pelvic floor dysfunction (whether it is in the form of pelvic pain, urinary/bowel dysfunction, or pelvic organ prolapse), thoughts of exercise and fitness are often accompanied by fear. Fearthat moving incorrectly will lead to a worsening of their symptoms. Fearof a set-back. Fearof creating a new problem. Finding an exercise program that will not only be safe, but actually aid in a person’s recovery and pelvic floor health is a fine art. Seeing a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be a good step in finding an individualized exercise program, but many may not have the luxury of working with a professional.
Recently, I did some research to help a few my patients find on-demand options for guided fitness that were pelvic floor friendly. I am grateful to have such an incredible community of pelvic health professionals to learn from and learn with, and I wanted to share these fantastic resources with you here. As always, please know that what works well for one person may not work well for another, thus, an individualized assessment is always the best option to determine the most appropriate exercise program for you.
For those with pelvic pain or pelvic floor tension (often the case in cases of pelvic pain, constipation, overactive bladder):
Creating Pelvic Floor Health with Shelly Prosko- Part A: Pelvic Floor Muscle Relaxation.“30 minute practice of releasing the pelvic floor muscles through pelvic floor awareness, visualization and breathing methods, during mindful movements and yoga postures.” Shelly is an incredible physiotherapist from Canada, with a practice specializing in using yoga interventions to help people with pelvic floor dysfunction. Shelly was kind enough to offer blog viewers 10% off her combined package using the discount code: ClientDiscount10
FemFusionFitness by Brianne Grogan– Brianne (also a physical therapist) has an excellent youtube channel, with several playlists offering movement options for those dealing with pelvic pain or pelvic floor tension. Her “Painful Sex” series includes 2 30-minute yoga sequences emphasizing pelvic floor relaxation, and it’s free!
For those with pelvic floor weakness (often the case–but not always! in situations like urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, diastasis rectus, fecal incontinence):
Mutu System: This is an excellent post-partum recovery program. Very helpful for those with pelvic floor weakness or diastasis rectus after having a baby. This is often my “go-to” for people having these problems that are unable to travel to see a pelvic PT. She does a great job at encouraging appropriate referral for further evaluation as well.
Fit2B: This is an online program with options for purchasing specific programs or for membership. It has a postpartum series, diastasis recti series, prenatal workshop, and foundational courses. I have had patients use this program who really enjoyed it.
Your Pace Yoga by Dustienne Miller:Dustienne has expanded her video library to include videos such as “Optimizing Bladder Control” which includes sequences to support pelvic floor engagement through yoga.
Pelvic Exercises by Michelle Kenway: Michelle has done excellent work creating videos and ebooks on safe exercise progressions for pelvic floor muscle weakness, prolapse, bowel dysfunction and surgical recovery. Check out her excellent videos here.
I hope these resources are helpful! Did I leave anything out? If you have other wonderful home exercise options that are “pelvic floor friendly” please let me know in the comments below!
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.
This past week, I was grateful for the opportunity to interview Jessica Drummond, MPT, CCN, CHC on the topic of nutrition for pelvic pain. Jessica is incredible, and doing such amazing things for patients with pelvic pain and really, in women’s health in general! Check out the interview below to learn more about nutrition, common dietary intolerances/sensitivities, probiotics, and what steps to take to help yourself (or your patients!) I hope you enjoy! ~ Jessica
(Note: This was my first of what I hope will be many expert interviews! Disregard my initial awkwardness with being recorded (Ha!). If you have any ideas for people you would like me to interview, let me know in the comments!)
A few weekends ago, I had the awesome opportunity to host Sara Sauder and Kelli Wilson in teaching their course, Vestibulodynia: An Orthopedic and Pelvic Floor Approach. The course was fantastic, and both Kelli and Sara are excellent instructors. Their course is unique in that it 1) focused on a very specific diagnosis (super great for those of us who have been practicing for a while 2) is very small–a max of 12 participants, meaning lots of one on one time with instructors 3) includes a facetime conversation with a well-known pelvic pain medical expert (in our case, Dr. Irwin Goldstein) and 4) allows participants to both perform treatments on instructors and have instructors perform treatments on participants.
Sara and I have been “virtual” friends for quite some time… in fact, I can’t remember when exactly we started e-mailing, but we became penpals of sorts. We share journal articles with each other, and I believe I even told her I was pregnant before I told many of my other friends (truth!). So, needless to say, I was SO excited for us to finally meet in person and become real friends. And, Sara was so gracious to agree to answer some of my questions to share some excellent insight with all of you on vestibulodynia and her course. I hope you enjoy!
JR: First, can you briefly explain what vestibulodynia is to my readers out there who are unfamiliar?
SS: Vestibulodynia is pain at the vestibule. The vestibule is a specific tissue at the opening of the vagina. The opening of the vagina itself has a name which is the “introitus”. The vestibule is part of the introitus. It is considered part of the vulva even though it may seem that it extends into the space between vulva and vagina. Hence the name…vestibule. It’s like a hallway. Or…an alcove, if you will….
Other than that simple explanation, vestibulodynia can feel like pain, itching, burning discomfort at the opening of the vagina or at the urethra or the bladder. The aftermath of this sort of pain can result in lots of other things happening, like feeling pain inside the vagina, at the other areas of the vulva including the clitoris.
JR: Thank you for explaining that further. Now, there are so many pelvic pain diagnoses out there…why a course on vestibulodynia?
SS: Vestibulodynia is truly a common denominator in so much female pelvic pain. I think that if we can start to recognize the vestibule hurts, then we can get to the root of why someone has pain. There is a logical way to think about why the vestibule hurts and we if we can understand the true why of the pain, then we can treat it. In treating that one core issue, we will see that other symptoms that may seem unrelated start to resolve.
JR: That’s a really good point. We see vestibulodynia as a common issue with so many different pelvic pain syndromes. One in particular, that we discussed in more detail at your course, is Interstitial Cystitis or Painful Bladder Syndrome. Now, most people see IC/PBS as a “Bladder Problem,” but you shared some interesting information about the relationship between pain at the vestibule and urethral/bladder pain. Can you explain that for our readers?
SS: The vestibule, urethra and lining of the bladder (including the urachus) are all made of endodermal tissue. They are all part of the same embyrological tube. Their needs are the same. That’s why you often see pain at the vestibule with any bladder symptoms. That’s why the reverse is true. You will see bladder symptoms with pain at the vestibule.
JR: That is fascinating, and also helps us to understand why some treatments for one may also be effective for the other (for example, both populations can have an increased hystamine response–especially during allergy season– and may have a decrease in pain with using anti-histamines! Moving on, in your course (which was awesome!), you discussed some of the main causes of vestibulodynia. The role between oral contraceptive use and vestibulodynia was discussed in detail. So many people are surprised to hear that being on birth control could contribute to their vulvar pain. Can you explain that a little bit more?
SS: Any product that affects the body’s sex hormones can affect parts of the body that are dependent on sex hormones. So, using a combined hormonal contraceptive or any other medicine that affects estrogen and testosterone will affect the vulvovaginal tissue. These areas are sex hormone dependent, to varying degrees based on their different embryology. We go into this in super detail in the vestibulodynia course. The mechanics of it are repeated over and over because if this isn’t truly understood, we, as physical therapists, will never understand what kind of progress is or isn’t possible for our patients. If a woman is on a medication that will lower their sex hormones and I keep treating her for symptoms of sex hormone reduction, I’ll be banging my head on the wall if I don’t understand that hormonally there are changes taking place that I can’t affect until the patient gets off of or alters that medication.
JR: That is especially interesting to me, as I have seen several patients (as well as a few close friends!) who have used oral contraceptives develop vulvar pain or pain with sexual intercourse. Now of course, we know that not everyone who takes OCPs will develop vestibulodynia, but it seems like certain individuals may be more susceptible than others. And the current research seems to recognize some of these problems occurring, to the point that now OCPs are no longer the most recommended type of contraceptive for women (especially younger ones). I know this was something we chatted a little bit about with Dr. Goldstein during our facetime chat at your course. (Readers: Here’s an interesting article about contraceptives and vulvar/bladder pain you may find helpful!)
Now, Vestibulodynia can be a tough diagnosis for clinicians to treat. What are the most common mistakes you think physical therapists make when working with women with vestibulodynia?
SS: The most common thing I find with clinicians of any discipline in working with patients with vestibulodynia is that often we completely miss the fact that the patient has vestibulodynia in the first place. Either the vestibule is completely removed from the assessment because it is pushed aside with a speculum, or it is not assessed via appropriate and specific q-tip testing. If we miss that we are dealing with issues at the vestibule, we are missing the point.
JR: So, true of many diagnoses! So, wrapping things up…one of the things I love about you is how hard you work to advocate for your patients– it’s amazing! So, let’s say I’m a woman reading this, and I think I have vestibulodynia. What should I do?
SS: If you think you have vestibulodynia, definitely talk to your physician about it. Explain your symptoms and ask to see a pelvic floor physical therapist. When you get a referral, call the physical therapist before your evaluation. Ask if they have treated vestibulodynia, ask how they treat it and ask about their success in treating it.
JR: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about vestibulodynia, and for coming to our clinic to share such an awesome course this weekend! I know we all really enjoyed it and found it super useful in learning to provide the best care we can for the women we treat who are experiencing vulvar pain (and really, pelvic pain in general!)
If you are a clinician who works with women with pelvic pain, I highly recommend Sara Sauder and Kelli Wilson’s course, Vestibulodynia: An Orthopedic and Pelvic Floor Approach. For more information, please check out their website: http://www.alcoveeducation.com/
SARA K. SAUDER PT, DPT
is originally from Dallas, has lived in Houston and prefers life in Austin. She received her Doctor of Physical Therapy from Texas Woman’s University in 2010, but began practicing with her Master in Physical Therapy in 2007. She works at Sullivan Physical Therapy and specializes in pelvic pain and mentors pelvic floor physical therapists through a professional mentorship program. To focus her interests, she authors the blog, Blog About Pelvic Pain. Through this medium she voices her opinion and experiences with diagnoses and treatments for pelvic pain. She has also been a guest writer for popular blogs such as Pelvic Guru, Pregnant Chicken, Scary Mommy and Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center’s As the Pelvis Turns. Sara interviews and shadows internationally-recognized specialists alike. She is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) Section of Women’s Health (SOWH), International Pelvic Pain Society (IPPS), the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) and the National Vulvodynia Association (NVA). She is as blurry in person as she is in her photos.