Category Archives: vulvodynia

Getting a second chance 

This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach Pelvic Floor Level 1: An Introduction to Female Pelvic Floor Function, Dysfunction and Treatment to a group of 40 clinicians in Houston. I love teaching beginner pelvic health classes. First, I am extremely passionate about pelvic health (in case you didn’t notice ūüėČ), so spending a weekend talking about my passion with people who want to learn about it is incredible. Second, I love that I get to play a crucial role in helping a practitioner advance his or her practice to include an entire area of the body that they likely have never examined before. Yep, these participants spend 3 days learning how to perform internal vaginal pelvic floor examinations. And that, my friends, tends to be a game changer.

Inevitably, over the weekend, many clinicians will have the mixture of regret and excitement in discovering that the new techniques they are learning could have helped a prior patient. ¬†And hopefully this comes with the thrill of realizing all of the current clients who are likely going to benefit when they get back to their clinics. But what about that past patient? The one they couldn’t help? The one who didn’t get better?

I’ve been there. When I was getting my doctorate at Duke, I had a professor who once told us,

“If you reach a point in your practice that you are so tied to the techniques you use that you refuse to question them or change your approach, you should retire.”

This powerful statement has stuck with me, and encouraged me to constantly question what I do, mold my approach, and strive to improve to better serve my patients. Many years ago, I worked with a wonderful woman who was seeing me to address persistent vulvar pain (Vulvodynia). We worked together for quite a while, and we saw some improvements. But she continued to have pain. I ended up sending her back to her physician, unsure of what else I could do to help her. ¬†Fast forward 2 years later, I was chatting with her gynecologist and that patient came to my mind. I asked her gynecologist if the patient was still struggling with pain, and unfortunately, she still was. That’s when it hit me: my practice had changed in those 2 years. I was a better, more experienced clinician. I had been to many other continuing education courses, and learned so much more through the patients and clinicians I had worked with.

Specifically:

  • My manual therapy toolbox grew larger. I had attended Stephanie Prendergast and Liz Rummer’s course on Pudendal Neuralgia, and had some good success using connective tissue mobilization and neural mobilization to help my patients with vulvar pain. I had also done coursework in dry needling and found this to be a novel input to make changes for my patients with tender muscles.
  • I had spent hours and hours diving deep into the pain neuroscience world. I had learned how much educating my patients about pain and integrating pain science within the interventions I provided could influence my patients positively and be a catalyst in their healing journeys.
  • I had connected with some fantastic psychological professionals in the area, including a counselor who was extremely talented at helping men and women dealing with chronic pain.

So, I asked the physician if she thought the patient would be open to coming back. We called the patient, and she was. And guess what? She was thrilled that I had thought of her after those years, and wanted to help her in her recovery. And guess what happened? She got better! My approach was different. I referred her to the counselor I mentioned, and he ended up being a huge player in her healing journey. She loved dry needling and connective tissue mobilization, and felt significant pain relief from these treatments. I also took a more active approach with her, got her moving in ways that helped her body not guard from pain, and together, we helped her move forward.

So, why am I telling you this? 

  • If you are a clinician, I hope you go to courses, read journals, and have conversations with colleagues that challenge your practice, encourage you to change, grow and get better! And if that reminds you of patients you could have helped, check in on them! Call them up, and ask them to take a chance on you! In my experience, men and women with chronic pain will be glad that you did! They’ll be glad you want to advocate for them, help them, and that you are passionate enough to still want to make a difference for them, months or years later.
  • If you are a patient who is still not better after failed treatments, try giving a clinician a second try. Send them an email and ask if they have learned anything new that may help you or want to review your case another time. You may be surprised at the results!

I want to hear from you! Have you ever seen a clinician for a second round with different outcomes? If you are a provider, how has your practice changed in the past few years? Have you helped a patient you couldn’t help before?¬†

I want to meet you! If you are a healthcare provider, I would love to have you at a course! Check out my future offerings here! Unable to make a live course? On-demand webinars are a great option too!

Have a great week!

Jessica

Interview with Sara Sauder, PT on Vestibulodynia, Contraceptives and Bladder Pain

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/

3377681_origSARA 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.

Biofeedback for Vulvodynia: An Update 

“Do you do Glazer’s protocol?”

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I have been asked this question several times over the past few years, by searching, hopeful women, looking for help after suffering from vulvar pain for far too long. I generally respond with, “I’m familiar with Glazer’s protocol, and would be happy to discuss it with you. Why don’t you come in for an evaluation and we can discuss treatment options specific to you?” This, in place of the, “I know it, but it’s more than likely not appropriate for you.”

Glazer’s protocol was a popular treatment approach, utilizing SEMG biofeedback to teach patients a method of contracting their pelvic floor muscles, to ultimately “fatigue” the muscles, and with the hope that doing so would relieve pain. Dr. Glazer was one of the first to publish research about treating the pelvic floor muscles in helping women with Vulvodynia, and all of us working with men and women with pelvic pain are grateful for his contributions.

However, as time goes on, we learn more and more. Which is awesome. And as we learn more, we hopefully change how we practice to provide the best treatment we can to our patients. Recently, my colleagues Sara Sauder and Amy Stein (2 fantastic clinicians and educators in pelvic pain) wrote an excellent commentary summarizing the evolution of biofeedback in helping women with vulvar pain. I was thrilled to see their commentary, and I thought many of you would benefit from it as well!

Sara and Amy very eloquently explain how the understanding of treatment to the pelvic floor muscles have changed over the years. Glazer’s protocol was based off the idea that frequent contractions of the pelvic floor muscles (both holding contractions and quick ones) would fatigue the muscles and thus lead to relaxation and pain relief. However, our current understanding of the pelvic floor musculature is quite different.

Shortened, Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles 

Amy and Sara go on to explain that as we have learned about the pelvic floor and seen the presentations of women experiencing vulvar pain, we have found that most women actually present with shortened, tender pelvic floor muscles. Typically, when this is found on examination, the optimal treatment includes a combination of relaxation strategies as well as manual treatment vaginally to encourage lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. And what about fatiguing them by doing lots of kegels? Well, we have found that when shortened muscles do lots of contractions, they can actually get irritated and more shortened!

So, what’s the place for biofeedback?¬†

First, it is important to realize that the term “biofeedback” is not exclusive to EMG. Really, biofeedback can be any cueing to encourage a patient to perform an exercise accurately. Sara and Amy give a few great examples: a finger in the vagina to encourage and cue the patient to relax and lengthen their muscles. A clinician teaching a patient the optimal way to harness the diaphragm with breathing. All biofeedback. And what about SEMG? It can offer some help for some patients to learn to relax and let go of their muscles. However, it can also be a little tricky because women with shortened muscles may appear “normal” on SEMG. Why? It’s complicated, but in summary, SEMG reads electrical activity… so, when a muscle is held at a shortened position for a long period of time, the body will adjust to this position as the new normal. Thus, this can “trick” a patient or clinician (especially if SEMG is done to replace an internal examination) into thinking the muscles are relaxed and functioning well, when they are actually shortened.

In summary, Glazer was a pioneer who really helped us in the process of better understanding Vulvodynia. But as all treatments and understandings do, we have evolved and changed to better understand what the most effective treatment techniques are for women experiencing Vulvodynia. Biofeedback should be a part of any treatment program… but SEMG biofeedback will have some utility for specific populations and limited utility for others.

I would encourage you to read Sara and Amy’s commentary yourself! You can find it here. If you are a physical therapist treating this population, you have the opportunity to learn from Sara in person! She teaches via Alcove Education, and has an excellent course: Vestibulodynia: An Orthopedic and Pelvic Floor Approach. My clinic is fortunate to host this course in just a few weeks! (Our course is sold out… but you can find upcoming courses here).

Sara and Amy are excellent clinicians, educators and advocates for men and women with pelvic pain. Sara runs a wonderful blog, Blog About Pelvic Pain, and Amy has created fantastic self-help tools, including her book Heal Pelvic Pain and her instructional DVD, Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain. I hope you enjoy these resources! 

Have a wonderful week!

Jessica