I often get asked why I chose to become a pelvic PT. Many people postulate that I have my own pelvic health challenges (I do…but those came later after 2 c-sections). Others assume I’ve always been super into the pelvis. But neither is really the case. The answer is quite a long one… but, honestly, it all came down to the patients.
Sometimes you have a moment in time that ends up defining the trajectory of your life (if you know, you know). And for me, this moment happen during a rotation in Shreveport, LA, while I was working on my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree through Duke University. I had an amazing clinical instructor (Darla Cathcart, who I now teach with through Herman & Wallace), and we were working with a patient who had been experiencing painful sex for as long as she had ever tried to have sex. I remember her talking with us during her initial evaluation, telling us about the relationships that had ended because of this, and tearfully explaining how she wanted this to not be a factor for her current relationship.
Fast forward, several visits later, she came in for her session, sat down, and started crying. She looked up and said, “I had sex, and it didn’t hurt.” I still get goosebumps as I right this. I got goosebumps in that moment. And, it was then and there that I KNEW that I had to help more people like her. I felt such clarity in my path. And I have never looked back.
Painful sex is extremely common. In fact, some studies show that it impacts around 20% of women. Yes, my friend, that is 1 in 5. However, women aren’t the only ones dealing with pain during or after sex. All people can deal with it– regardless of gender or anatomy. And, it really tends to be one of those things that just isn’t talked about. Nearly every time I post about painful sex on social media, I end up with private messages from people who have been dealing with pain for years, and just thought it was normal. Common does not mean normal. A little louder (for the people in the back):
Just because pain during sex is common, does NOT mean it is normal. Not if you:
Have had a baby
Have never had sex before
Have had sex a lot
Have been told you are small
Think your partner may be large
Have had problems with bladder or other infections
Have sensitive skin
While some of these factors may make someone more likely to have pain during sex (like if you had a baby and had a tear that took a while to heal), this still does not mean that pain is just something you have to deal with. Honestly, there are so many reasons why someone might have pain with sex. It could be related to:
Painful scar tissue
Orthopedic challenges (especially around the hip or low back)
Bowel dysfunction (hello constipation)
Conditions like endometriosis/adenomyosis, painful bladder syndrome/IC, or others.
Pelvic floor and abdominal muscle challenges
And many, many other things! And so so many different treatments to help! This can include finding the right moisturizers and lubricants for your body, additional medical interventions (medications, hormone creams, and more!) and working with a pelvic health specialist to help you optimize your pelvic floor muscles (through gentle manual therapy techniques, home exercises, lots of education, and a whole lot more!)
If you’ve been dealing with pain during sex, please know that you are not alone.
So so many other people deal with this too. And the great news is that enjoyable sex is possible for you. We can get there. There is treatment available. There are compassionate clinicians who care (if yours didn’t, pllleeeeasssseee go see a new one!). And we can work together to get you feeling better.
I have so much more to say about this!! But for now, I’m going to leave you with a few links for prior blogs with more information!
Whenever I teach coursework to pelvic PTs, a common theme tends to come up. While teaching someone to contract their pelvic floor muscles can be challenging, teaching someone to relax and lengthen? So much harder! And teaching someone to actually bear down (the way you need to move your muscles to have a bowel movement)? Way way harder! So, I wanted to take some time today to talk about how to relax and lengthen your pelvic floor muscles. This is super helpful for anyone experiencing pelvic floor overactivity– which often includes people with pelvic pain conditions, constipation, painful sex, and urinary urgency/frequency. And if you’re a rehab professional, this post will also give you tips to help train your patients to lengthen.
As an aside, if you’re a rehab professional and new to pelvic floor therapy, check out my facebook group, built just for you: Pelvic PT Newbies! This group was born after teaching so many new clinicians who just lack the support they need to grow into the incredible practitioners they can be! So, come join us! And, if you’re a more seasoned clinician who loves supporting newbies, you are welcome as well!
Back to the topic at hand, how do you learn to relax and lengthen your pelvic floor muscles? Let’s get started!
1. Locate and find your pelvic floor muscles
It’s tough to let go of tension in a part of your body you don’t really know. So, step one is locating these awesome muscles. The pelvic floor muscles are inside your pelvis like a hammock and run from your tailbone to your pubic bone. They support your organs, stabilize your pelvis and spine, control your sphincters, allow for sexual appreciation, and act as a sump pump to pump blood and lymphatic fluid in and out of your pelvis (Yep, those are the 5 S’s we teach at H&W). They are also super important for breathing–coordinating with your respiratory diaphragm, and play a big role in postural stability and movement. So, locate those muscles in your mind, and see what you know. Can you use those muscles and contract as if you were holding back gas or cutting off a urine stream? If you aren’t sure you’re doing it, grab a mirror, and take a look at your perineum. Do you see the anus pull in (like it’s winking) away from you and the perineal body (between the vulva/penis/scrotum and the anus) lift in? Or do you see the anus bulge out? If you have a vulva, you will also see a small amount of lift there and you will see the clitoris do a really tiny little nod of approval (that’s because the pelvic floor muscles superficially attach to the hood over the clitoris). If you have a penis, you’ll see the penis move as you contract.
Once you connect with your pelvic floor muscles, the opening and lengthening can begin.
2. Pelvic Floor “Drops” with Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is my standby, go-to, exercise for encouraging lengthening and opening of the pelvic floor muscles. To perform this exercise, bring your mind back to your pelvic floor muscles. Then, aim to let go of the muscles and lengthen, as if you are starting a urine stream. Note– this does NOT mean bear down and push out. Urination actually should not require ANY pushing. This is simply opening, letting go, and lengthening. Another tip to help visualize this is to think about a straw in one of your orifices, then imagine that straw is in a cup of water, and you’re trying to gently blow bubbles in the water (believe me, I’m full of weird visual analogies!) After you drop and lengthen your muscles, let’s do slow, diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing well means allowing your chest, ribcage, and belly to expand as you inhale– Yes, this is NOT just belly breathing! Belly breathing really does not harness the diaphragm the same way! So, perform slow breathing inhaling, allowing your ribs to open, chest to lift, belly to expand AND pelvic floor muscles to open, then exhale gently. Repeat this slow breathing for 2-3 breaths. Then, check in with your pelvic floor muscles, drop them again, and repeat! If it is challenging to know if your muscles are opening or not, you can perform a very small (like 10-20%) activation of the pelvic floor muscles before letting them lengthen and open. That being said, if you have significant overactivity, even a small contraction can irritate the muscles– so pay attention to what you feel!
3. The Elevator Let-Go
This is another visualization that can sometimes help you leg go all of the way of your pelvic floor muscles. To do this, visualize an elevator sitting in your pelvis. This is your main floor, and your building has 10 floors, and a basement. Now, use your muscles to gently lift that elevator to the first floor. Then, drop the elevator to the main floor. Take a deep breath while you visualize the elevator dropping all the way to the basement. Keep the elevator there while you gently take 2-3 breaths. NOTE: This also should not require much effort– we’re aiming to gently relax and lengthen.
4. Happy Baby Breathing
This is one of my favorite positions to encourage lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. For this exercise, you’ll lie on your back and bring your knees up toward your chest, then open your knees and reach through to grab your ankles or your toes (whatever is comfortable and allows you to relax). In this position, take deep long breaths, focusing your breath into your abdomen and pelvis.
Hopefully this helps you get started! Believe me, lengthening the pelvic floor muscles can be challenging, so try not to get too frustrated if you find this difficult at first! If you’re struggling, reach out to a pelvic PT. We’re happy to help you figure this out, and have more tools available if these ones don’t resonate with you!
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.