Category Archives: Women’s Health

Prioritizing Self-Care

So, as you may have realized, I periodically write about topics that hit close to home. This was especially true while I was pregnant and trying to live the advice that I often give to patients (Teaser: Do as I say, not as I do.). As a mom to a now 1-year-old, the topic of self-care has been on my mind quite a bit recently. I remember when my daughter was 6 months old, going to the dentist. As I tried to come up with a reason why they hadn’t seen me in almost a year, the best I could do was to honestly say, “Really, I haven’t done much of anything to take care of myself since my daughter was born.” And guess what? It was totally true. I was having a hard time getting back to exercise. I wasn’t sleeping all that well (I mean, who sleeps well with a new baby? If it’s you, don’t tell me.) And, I had skipped many of the typical self-care things that I normally enjoy doing regularly.

My experience unfortunately is not that unique to many new moms (and old moms, and lots of other people too!). In discussing this with my friends and patients, I often find that people live very busy lives and struggle with prioritizing themselves amidst an often hectic schedule. By the time we wake up, make lunches, get everyone out the door, work a busy job, cook dinner, tidy up the house, prepare for the next day, etc… there really doesn’t seem to be time left. The idea of adding in an hour for exercise, meal-prepping or seeing a doctor/dentist/physical therapist can feel impossible.

But, the truth comes down to two key points:

  1. We have time when we make time. 
  2. When we care for ourselves, we actually care better for others. 

Did you know that stress can worsen chronic pain? And that stress is connected to all sorts of illnesses (like heart disease, among others?) Did you know that exercise has all sorts of amazing benefits? (see the awesome whiteboard video below)

In short, when we care for ourselves through exercise, quiet time/meditation, quality time with friends/family, or necessary medical/dental/physical therapy visits, we actually equip our bodies with the tools we need to better handle the stress that comes our way and ultimately, to better care for the important people in our lives.

So, how do you make time for self-care? 

  • Set a realistic expectation: If you do not currently exercise at all, don’t start with a goal of exercising every day. You will probably fail. Instead, make a goal at exercising 2-3 times in the week. If you know that your mornings are completely hectic and busy, that may not be your best time for quiet time/meditation. Instead, perhaps in the evenings as you are wrapping up your day may be a better time.
  • Be specific on your when, what and how:  When I was in PT school, we learned that goals should be objective, measurable and achievable.  This not only sets our patients up for success, but lets us evaluate if our intervention is working. So, if your goal is to exercise, try being specific on your when, why and how. For example, I could aim to run 30 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after work.  The more specific and scheduled, the more likely you will be to achieve success.
  • Get help when you need it: If it is challenging to hold yourself accountable, talk to a friend or a partner to get some help. Verbally expressing your goals and detailed plan to another person can often help provide the necessary support and accountability for success. If you know you need more tangible help to be successful, make sure to ask for it. This may mean something like planning ahead with your partner to manage childcare responsibilities or it could mean finding a friend who will actually go and exercise with you.

What other strategies do you have for self-care? How have you been successful in the past?

As always, I would love to hear from you!

~Jessica

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Clinical Expert Interview with Susan Clinton, PT on Sensory Balloon Retraining for Bowel Dysfunction

In continuing my video series with clinical experts, I interviewed Susan Clinton, PT, DscPT, OCS, WCS, COMT, FAAOMPT (Yes, those are a TON of initials!!) regarding balloon training as a treatment for bowel dysfunction. Susan is well-known in our profession as an expert on bowel dysfunction, and her video definitely did not disappoint!

Curious about this treatment? Check out the interview below! If you want to learn more, here are a few research articles that mention balloon training as a treatment tool (this one and this one) Hope you enjoy!

Can physical therapy help menstrual cramps?

Did you know that over 80% of women experience painful periods? And for some women, the amount of pressure in the uterus from those cramps can be just as severe as labor pains?

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As someone who has been in labor recently, I can tell you that it is no cakewalk. The truth is that menstrual pain (Dysmenorrhea) is a significant problem for many women. In fact, this study found that in a group of 269 female college students, 84% experienced pain in the abdomen and back, 84% experienced mood swings and 48% experienced dizziness. Another interesting stat from this study: 48% felt like their academic performance was impacted. (and I would bet women out of school probably feel like their work and home life are impacted too!)

With menstrual pain impacting women as much as it does, it is surprising how few effective pain-reducing options we have. Most women turn to pain relievers like tylenol and ibuprofen, but the effectiveness of those in actually reducing the pain isn’t really that great. The great news is that there are many ways in which physical therapy can actually help with menstrual pain, and several studies have shown that many physiotherapy interventions are just as (if not more!) effective as pain medications.

So, what can physical therapy do to help with those painful cramps?

Movement-based Approaches

Movement is what we do in physical therapy, and certain exercises which help with movement of the spine and abdomen can be very helpful in improving pain levels. This study, in particular, found that certain yoga postures–Cat, Cobra and Fish– helped with reducing pain. Another study found that a physical therapy program including aerobic exercise, strengthening, stretching and relaxation led to a reduction in pain during menses.

Modalities

So, modalities sometimes get a bad rap in the physical therapy world. And I get it, they are passive (meaning you, as the patient, don’t really have to do anything), and they are frequently over-used in cases when an active approach can be more helpful. But, certain modalities have been shown to be very helpful in reducing menstrual pain. In particular, applied hot packs were found to be equally beneficial to pain medication in this study! Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) applied to the low back/sacrum and/or abdomen has also been shown to have excellent results. The great thing about both of these options is that they are easy, reusable and effective options for a woman to use monthly without having to ingest medication.

Manual Therapy Interventions

The research regarding manual interventions for painful periods is honestly not fantastic, however, there have been some studies that have shown that treatments such as connective tissue mobilization, massage and acupressure have been helpful in reducing menstrual pain. When I used to work at a large clinic, many of my female co-workers would seek connective tissue mobilization and other soft tissue mobilizations from colleagues when having painful cramps. Clinically, I have seen that working with someone to reduce muscle sensitivity and tenderness (both in the pelvic floor muscles as well as muscles around the pelvis) does seem to reduce cramping during menses. I’m not positive the exact mechanism for this, but my working theory is that improving the “threat level” from muscles and tissues around the pelvis has effects that transfer to other situations (like cramping during periods), so the “threat level” during this situation is also reduced. I also think that hormones play a role in this as the tissues at the vulva/urethra are sensitive to estrogen, but also impacted by muscles and blood flow. So, hormonal changes that occur within a normal cycle (that lead to cramping, etc) could then be impacted by a decreased blood flow and decreased tissue mobility, thus causing the discomfort from cramping to be worsened.  There you go, that’s my working theory.

So, in summary, if you’re having pretty bad cramping during your periods, know that there are some options to help! Often times, women are the WORST at just dealing with problems they have (and things like painful cramps are often blown off by friends, family members and other healthcare providers!) If this sounds like you, it may be worth seeing a pelvic PT for a consultation to help you build a robust and effective toolbox for managing your pain!

What other options have you found helpful in reducing cramping pain during periods? I always love to hear from you! Have a great week!

Jessica

**Note: If your menstrual cramps are severe and truly limiting your life, make sure that your healthcare provider knows about it! There are some medical conditions which can contribute to severe cramping, and there are treatments available. 

Sex After Baby- 4 Reasons Why It Can Hurt and What To Do About It

“Ok, TMI…but is everyone having sex again? We tried last night and OMG it was awful! So painful!!”

I clicked on the thread in one of my Facebook moms groups, and slowly looked through the comments, hoping to see words of encouragement, support, and most importantly, solid health advice. 

“I know, me too. I just try to avoid it as much as I can.”

“What is sex? LOL”

Then, I began my comment, “Hi, I’m a pelvic PT and also the mom to a 6 month old. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. It’s so important to know that pain is not something you have to live with. There is help out there…”

Why is painful sex after childbirth so overlooked in healthcare? Why do so many women feel like they just have to live with this as a normal “consequence” of having a baby?

This past fall, I went through the craziest initiation process to join one of the most exclusive clubs out there: Motherhood. It has been an incredible and humbling journey for me, especially as a health care provider who specializes in helping women with problems they experience while pregnant and postpartum. Becoming a mother has allowed me to experience and witness first-hand many of the challenges women face after having babies.

Pain during sexual activity is extremely common after childbirth (Note: I said common…NOT normal). In fact, a large study of over 1000 women found that 85% experience pain during their first vaginal intercourse postnatally. At 3 months postpartum, 45% still were experiencing pain and at 18 months postpartum, 23% were still experiencing pain. Let that sink in. When a mother’s baby is 18 months old, 1 in 5 mamas had pain during sex! And the sad thing is that pain during sexual intercourse is SO treatable!! So, let’s get down to business…

Why could sex hurt after a baby? 

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  1. Perineal Trauma from Childbirth

    Spontaneous tearing and episiotomies are very common during vaginal deliveries. In fact, this study looking at 449 women who had at least 1 delivery found that only 3% of them did not have any tearing/episiotomy. Many women are able to heal from tears without problems. However, for some women, these injuries can become sources of pain, especially during sexual intercourse. This is especially true with more severe tears extending into the external anal sphinctor and rectum (grade 3-4 tears). This study found that women who had tears extending into the anal sphinctor were 3-4 times more likely to have pain during intercourse at 1 year postpartum compared to their counterparts. Perineal scars can be very sensitive and move poorly in some women leading to persistent discomfort which can last for years after the baby is born when it is not treated (but guess what? It CAN be treated!)

  2. Hormonal Changes

    Anyone who has had a baby can attest to the crazy hormonal fluctuations that happen during pregnancy and postpartum. One of my very best friends warned me about this telling me that she cried every day for the first week after the baby was born. Guess what? So did I. These crazy hormones can also impact what is happening down below, especially in breastfeeding mamas. Basically, the hormonal changes lead to decreased estrogen in the vulvar tissues often causing thinning and dryness. This is why breastfeeding is associated with painful sexual intercourse early on postpartum. Now, if you are reading this and you are a nursing mama like myself, should you stop to fix your sexual discomfort? Not necessarily. This study found that although nursing was associated with dyspareunia at 6 weeks postpartum, the association was eliminated by 6 months. Meaning, stopping nursing won’t necessarily fix the problem (so don’t let this be your deciding factor in the decision to breastfeed your babe).

  3.  Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles

    The pelvic floor muscles themselves can become big sources of sexual discomfort if they are tender, shortened or irritated after childbirth. Perineal trauma and hormonal changes can lead to tenderness in the pelvic floor muscles, but the muscles can also stand on their own. Many people believe that C-sections protect the pelvic floor muscles from having problems, however, we have to remember that the pelvic floor are one member of a team of muscles (including the deep abdominal muscles, low back muscles and respiratory diaphragm) that work together to provide support and stability to the pelvis. That could be partially why C-section mamas are actually 2-3 times more likely to experience more intense pain during sexual intercourse at 6 months postpartum.

  4. Because Babies are Hard

    I had to add this one in. It’s important to remember than normal sexual function should include sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm. New mamas are exhausted, feeding sweet little babies around the clock, settling into a new routine whether they are returning to jobs or caring for their babies at home,  sleep-deprived from often waking up multiple times a night, changing diapers, and worrying constantly about helping these little babies survive and thrive. And honestly, it can be really hard for many moms to have the same level of sexual desire and arousal that they had prior to having their babies (at least until life settles down– or I’m told–when the babies go to college LOL). When a woman experiences sexual desire and arousal, there is natural lubrication and lengthening of the vaginal canal, and this step is so important in having enjoyable sexual activity. Sometimes, when this step is skipped, women are more likely to experience discomfort with vaginal penetration.

So, what can be done to help?

Realize it is not normal. Don’t just deal with it. And check-in with your Obstetric provider.

The first step is seeing your OB or midwife to make sure everything is ok medically. She should evaluate you to make sure everything is healing the way that it should be healing and that nothing else is going on that needs to be managed medically. I have had patients who have had difficulties healing after tears and needed some medical help to encourage their tissues to heal the way they needed to. I have also worked with women who had underlying infections contributing to their pain, that of course, needed to be treated to move forward. This is not a step you should skip, so don’t be bashful! Tell your doctor what is going on.

Don’t be afraid to use a little help.

I get it. You never had to use lubricant before, and it’s annoying to have to use it now. But guess what? It can make a HUGE difference in reducing discomfort from thin or dehydrated vulvar tissues after babies! So, if you don’t already have a good one, go pick out a nice water-based lubricant to use. Some of my favorites for my patients are Slippery Stuff and Sliquid. I am also a big fan of coconut oil (but make sure to know that using it with condoms can cause condom breakdown).

If you are having difficulty with sexual arousal and desire since having your baby, and you feel comfortable with it (I know, some women don’t!), try using a small vibrator to help with improving sexual arousal and promoting orgasm. Many sex therapists I work with encourage couples to consider using this on days when they need a little assistance attaining the arousal they need.

Educate your sexual partner and empower them to help you

It can be so helpful to include partners in this process. Show them this blog post, so they can understand what could be going on, and empower them to help you! For some women having difficulties with arousal, having their partner do something like clean up after dinner and put the baby to bed so they can have time for a quiet relaxing shower can be just the ticket to helping them become more sexually aroused to decrease sexual discomfort. If you are having problems with painful perineal scars or pelvic floor muscles, consider including your partner in your medical or physical therapy visits so they can understand what you are experiencing. Many pelvic PTs (like myself) will often educate partners in methods to help with decreasing pain , and even in treating the pelvic floor muscles/scars (if both people feel comfortable and on-board with this!).

Go see a pelvic PT!

If you have tender pelvic floor muscles or painful scars, all the lubricant and sexual arousal in the world is not going to fix the problem. Working with a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be hugely beneficial in identifying where and what the problem is, and helping you move forward from pain!

A skilled physical therapist will spend time talking with you the first visit to understand your history (including specifics of your delivery), and will perform a comprehensive examination, head to toe, to see how your body moves, where you might not be moving as well as you could be, and how you transfer force through your body. They will also perform an examination of the abdominal wall (especially important for C-section mamas), and an internal vaginal examination of the pelvic floor muscles. Based on this examination, they will be able to work with you to develop a plan to help you optimize the function of your body and get back to a happy and healthy sex life!

This is first in likely a few series of posts I will be doing on postpartum specific problems. I hope you all enjoy! Please please please reach out if you have any questions at all!

Have a wonderful week!

Jessica

 

Interview with Jessica Drummond, MPT, CCN, CHC on Nutrition for Pelvic Pain

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!) 

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 😉), 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

Head, Shoulders, Knees…and Pelvic Floor!

I spent my first few years of practice going deep into the pelvis… and my most recent few years, desperately trying to get out. Now, I know that may seem like a strange statement to read coming from me, the pelvic floor girl. But bear with me. I love the pelvic floor, I really do. I enjoy learning about the pelvis, treating bowel/bladder problems, helping my patients with their most intimate of struggles. I like to totally “nerd out” reading about the latest research related to complex nerve pain, hormonal and nutritional influences, and complicated or rarely understood diagnoses. However, the more I learned about the pelvic floor, the more I discovered that in order to provide my patients with the best care I can possibly provide, I needed to journey outside the pelvis and integrate the rest of the body.

You see, the pelvic floor does not work in isolation.

It is not the only structure preventing you from leaking urine.

It is not the sole factor in allowing you to have pleasurable sexual intercourse.

It is not the only structure stabilizing your tailbone as you move.

It is simply one gear inside the fascinating machine of the body.

And, the incredible thing about the body is that a problem above or below that gear, can actually influence the function of the gear itself! And that is pretty incredible! One of the patients that most inspired me to really start my journey outside of the pelvis was an 18-year-old girl I treated 4 years ago. She was a senior in high school and prior to the onset of her pelvic pain had been an incredible athlete– playing soccer, volleyball and ice hockey. Since developing pelvic pain, she had to stop all activities. Her pain led to severe nausea, and was greatly impacting her senior year. When I examined her, I noticed some interesting patterns in the way she walked. With further questioning, she ended up telling me that a year ago, she experienced a fracture of her tibia (the bone by her knee) while playing soccer. She was immobilized in a brace for about a month, then cleared to resume all activity. (Yep, no physical therapy). Looking closer, she had significant weakness around her knee that was influencing the way she moved, and leading to a compensatory “gripping” pattern in her pelvic floor muscles to attempt to stabilize her hips and legs during movement. So, we treated her knee (She actually ended up having a surgery for a meniscal tear that had not been discovered by her previous physician), and guess what? Her pelvic pain was eliminated. BOOM. If you want to read more about her story, I actually wrote the case up for Jessica McKinney’s blog and pelvic health awareness project, Share MayFlowers, in 2013.

So, what else is connected to the pelvic floor? Here are a few interesting scenarios:

  • Poor mobility in the neck and upper back can actually lead to neural tension throughout the body– yes, including the nerves that go to the pelvic floor. (I’ve had patients bend their neck to look down and experience an increase in tailbone pain. How amazing is that?)
  • Being stuck in a slumped posture can cause a person to have decreased excursion of his or her diaphragm, which can then put the pelvic floor in a position in which it is unable to contract or relax the way it needs to.
  • Grinding your teeth at night? That increased tension in the jaw can impact the intrathoracic pressure (from glottis to diaphragm), which in turn, impacts the intra-abdominal pressure (from diaphragm to pelvic floor) and, you guessed it, your pelvic floor muscles!
  • An ankle injury may cause a person to change the way he or she walks, which could increase the work one hip has to do compared to the other. This can cause certain muscles to fatigue and become sore and tender, including the pelvic floor muscles!

Pretty cool right? And the amazing thing is that this is simply scratching the surface! The important thing to understand here is that you are a person, not a body part! Be cautious if you are working with someone who refuses to look outside of your “problem” to see you as a whole. And if you have a feeling in your gut that something might be connected to what you have going on, it really might be! Speak up!

As always, I love to hear from you! Have you learned of any interesting connections between parts of your body? For my fellow pelvic PTs out there, what cool clinical correlations have you found?

Have a great Tuesday!

Jessica

Wanna read more? Check out this prior post on connections between the diaphragm and the rest of the body!

 

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. (ReadersHere’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.

Exercise during pregnancy

So, I’ll be honest… I’m writing this as much for myself as I am for you. You see, as a women’s health specialist, I have preached the benefits of exercise during pregnancy for years. I’ve taught classes to women in the community on how to exercise safely and encouraged them in all the way exercise would help their babies, their bodies, their overall health. I’ve lectured other health care professionals on how to help pregnant women start exercise programs, how to monitor them for safety, and which specific exercises are better for women during pregnancy.

But the thing is…I’m now pregnant. 26 weeks to be exact. With this darling, sweet little angel GIRL!

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You have to admit, she’s already adorable, isn’t she?

And it has been wonderful, amazing, incredible to experience…and… educational. I thought that I would be the perfect fit pregnant lady. I would follow all of my own advice on everything and stay super active and fit throughout the pregnancy (I mean, I’ve told so many people that pregnant women can keep exercising at the same level they did before pregnancy!). But, then reality hit… First trimester, I was reallllllyyy realllyyyy tired. Like super tired. In fact, I sometimes just fell asleep on the couch after work (and I am really not a napper). My bedtime effectively became 8pm. And, on top of that, I was nauseous. Which creates the perfect combination for not being a super active, fit pregnant lady. But, I tried to do the best I could! Which mostly meant walking sometimes (on the treadmill or outside). Better than nothing though!

Then, second trimester hit, and all of my symptoms got so much better (just as we tell people they should!). I had more energy, could stay up until at least 9pm, and no longer felt nauseous. Buuuttt… I also was in the process of buying a new house, cleaning and updating said house, then moving, unpacking, and trying to organize our home… So, needless to say, I was not the picture perfect fit pregnant lady over that time either.

So now we reach today. 26 weeks, 2 weeks away from starting my third trimester, and walking as well as a little bit of yoga/pilates is still the best I have done for exercise (Not saying anything bad about walking… I have loved it during pregnancy, it has great benefits, and I plan to continue it! But, I also want to add some variety and a little more frequency to my routine!) So, this post serves both to give you some great information, hopefully motivate a few of my fellow pregnant ladies to jump-start their fitness, and also hopefully to motivate me to up my exercise frequency and throw a little variety in the walking routine. 🙂

So, why exercise during pregnancy?

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For many years now, exercise has been supported as effective and helpful during pregnancy. The benefits of exercise during pregnancy are actually pretty incredible:

  • Cardiovascular benefits (improving blood pressure, heart rate, etc) are passed on from mother to baby… so baby can actually have a healthier little heart when born!
  • Decreased weight gain during pregnancy, which actually can prevent obesity in both mom and baby. Recent studies have suggested that women who gain excessive weight during pregnancy (when starting at normal or overweight BMI) are more likely to have larger babies. The interesting this is that when this occurs both mom AND baby are at risk for developing obesity in the future.
  • Decreased risk of gestational diabetes (and improvements in women with GDM)
  • Decreased likelihood of Caesarean or operative vaginal delivery
  • Improved recovery postpartum
  • Improved psychological functioning during and after pregnancy

How should you exercise during pregnancy?

The great news is, most women can actually continue exercising at the same level they were exercising prior to being pregnant. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology just updated their recommendations on exercise during pregnancy this past December. The most recent guidelines recommend that pregnant women exercise 20-30 minutes at moderate intensity most days of the week. The safest types of exercise identified by the committee include:

  • Walking
  •  Swimming
  • Stationary cycling
  • Low-impact aerobics
  • Modified Yoga
  • Modified Pilates
  • Running or jogging
  • Raquet sports (as long as able to do so maintaining good balance)
  • Strength training

The following types of exercise are recommended to be avoided (for mostly obvious reasons):

  • Contact sports (ice hockey, boxing, soccer, basketball)
  • Activities with a high risk of falling (downhill skiing, water skiing, surfing, off-road cycling, gymnastics)
  • Scuba diving
  • Sky diving
  • “Hot” yoga or pilates (due to temperature regulation issues in many pregnant women)

How hard should you exercise?

You may be familiar with the standard method of determining intensity of exercise by monitoring heart rate. This method is not reliable during pregnancy as cardiovascular function changes with pregnancy, thus, the numbers won’t provide accurate guidelines. Instead, women are encouraged to utilize a scale such as the Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale. Basically, this scale goes from 6 (sedentary) to 20(maximal exertion). Pregnant women are encouraged to aim for moderate intensity (13-14 somewhat hard) during exercise. Another option for monitoring intensity of exercise is the familiar “talk test.” Basically, as long as you can continue a conversation the intensity is likely not getting overly difficult and should be safe.

When shouldn’t you exercise?

There are several times when it would not be indicated for a pregnant woman to start or continue an exercise program. Absolute contraindications for exercise are shown in the following table (taken from the recent committee opinion listed above):

An absolute contraindication means that if this is occurring, the person should not engage in an exercise program for any reason. A relative contraindication means that a person should take caution and consult with her physician prior to engaging in exercise. The relative contraindications are listed below:

When should you STOP exercising?

There are instances during pregnancy when it may become unsafe to continue an exercise session. If these situations occur, it is important to immediately stop exercising and contact your physician, as continuing to exercise in these scenarios may be harmful to the mother or the baby:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  •  Regular painful contractions
  • Amniotic fluid leakage
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath) before exertion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Muscle weakness impacting balance
  • Calf pain or swelling

Getting started

If you are pregnant and have not started exercising, it’s really not too late! There are a few things to keep in mind as you get started!

  1. Talk to your Obstetrician. If exercise is not routine for you, talk to your doctor first before you start a program to make sure it will be safe for you to exercise during your pregnancy.
  2. Start gentle and slow. It generally is better to slowly ease into exercise. Remember, the guidelines encourage 20-30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week. But, when you first start, it may be wise to start with smaller increments and make 20-30 minutes your goal. Walking, gentle prenatal yoga or water aerobics may be a good, safe place to start.
  3. Something is a lot better than nothing. It really is. And I feel ya, some days you’re exhausted or nauseous and just can’t get to the gym. So, when that happens, do what you can. Go for a short walk. Try some home prenatal exercise videos. Or, just take the day off and rest. Then try again tomorrow.
  4. Listen to your body. And I really mean it. If something isn’t feeling right, pay attention to it! Talk with your doctor if you notice anything unusual or if something isn’t feeling well when you are exercising. Take breaks as you need to, and don’t push yourself too hard.
  5. Get some help! Reach out to your local Women’s Health physical therapist to come in for a session and get some help developing a program that will work for you! Also, talk with your physician, midwife or doula about resources in the area. If you live in the Atlanta area, like me, there are great programs like OhBaby! Fitness offering exercise classes for new or expectant moms. Remember, you don’t have to do this alone!

What motivated (or is currently motivating!) you to stay active during your pregnancy? What are your favorite exercises? As always, I’d love to hear from you!

Have a great week!

~Jessica

Your bladder and bowels need a diary.

This past weekend, I had the wonderful experience of assisting at Herman & Wallace’s Level 1 Pelvic Floor Course, held here in Atlanta. I have been assisting at these courses for the past 4 years now, and I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better than helping clinicians who are new to the field of pelvic health learn and grow in this fantastic specialty. I love the excitement, the slight fear (I mean, many of these folks are doing their first vaginal exams at these courses), and the growing passion for helping men and women with pelvic floor problems. And the most exciting thing is knowing that they are going out in their communities to begin offering this service to people who really need it. And, now you know how much that really means to me. 

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Cathy Neal (an awesome PT who assisted with me), Susannah Haarmann (an awesome PT who instructed the course), and myself! 🙂 We’re just missing Amanda Shipley and Pam Downey! Photo courtesy of Susannah!

The initial level 1 course covers an introduction to pelvic floor dysfunction (all diagnoses), and covers bladder dysfunction in more detail. One of the prerequisites of the course is for all participants to complete a bladder diary which is then evaluated in the class. So, why keep a bladder or bowel diary? 

First, let’s be honest, we are all horrible historians. Many of us can barely remember what we ate for breakfast, let alone remember all the details of our bathroom habits! Let me ask you this:

  • How many times did you urinate yesterday?
  • How much fluid did you drink? What exactly did you drink?
  • What did your poop look like? When did you poop?

If you’re like me, it’s probably tricky to recall these exact details. (Well, you may be slightly better at recalling than I am, now that my pregnancy brain is in full effect!). And, if you are having any problems with your bowels or bladder, these details really do matter. Here are a few examples:

Patient #1: Mary (obviously not her name) was a lovely 65 year old retired nurse experiencing urinary leakage on her way to the restroom several times each day. She had tried exercises, dietary changes, and medications, and her problem kept persisting. Her bladder diary was eye opening for both of us! We learned that she only leaked urine when she would hold her bladder for over 6 hours! After years of holding her bladder for entire shifts, she got into some pretty bad habits. Once we changed this, her leakage went away completely! 

Patient #2: Sara(also, not her name) was a 10 year old girl having bowel accidents daily. Once we did a diary, we found out the problem! Her mother was a hair stylist who saw clients out of her home. Sara was afraid to have a bowel movement while her mom’s clients were there, and had started having accidents from getting too constipated! The three of us quickly determined a “code word” for Sara to tell her mom when she needed to go, and within 2 weeks, the problem was solved! 

So, as you can see… these little diaries can be oh so powerful! So, let’s get into the details!

Who should do a bowel or bladder diary? Well, in my mind, everyone should try it at some point! It’s so cool to see what your patterns really are… but for sure, anyone who is having problems like urinary urgency or frequency, urinary leakage, constipation or bowel leakage.

How long should you keep one?  Typically, I like people to track for at least 3 days. Preferably, two of those days should be “regular” and one can be “different.” For example, if you are working, you may choose two days to be work days, and one to be over the weekend.

What should you look for?  The best thing to do if you are having problems is to bring your diary to your health care provider. He or she will be able to analyze it completely, and give you insight into what may be happening. However, I do think there is some benefit in doing a little sleuthing yourself. Here are a few things to identify:

  • How often are you going? Normal bladder frequency is typically around 5-8 times each day, and less than 1 time each night. Normal bowel frequency varies quite a bit from 1 time over 3 days to 3 times each day.
  • How strong are your urges when you go? Generally, I recommend grading urges on a 0-3 scale (from no urge –> gotta go right now!). Were most of your urges very small? Were you running to the bathroom all day?
  • How much did you urinate? The best way to track this is to actually measure your output (usually a cheap plastic cup or a dollar tree measuring cup works well). Normal output of urine is 400-600 mL per void. You can also try just counting the seconds of your stream, however, this does tend to be less accurate. We generally tell people that each stream should be at least 8 seconds.
  • What did your poop look like? Was your stool soft and formed? Little rabbit pellets? Did you have to push hard to empty your bowels or did they come out easily? Did you have any discomfort or pain?
  • What was your diet like? Do you notice any trends in what you eat or drink? Were you drinking some well-known bladder offenders (like caffeinated drinks, soda, coffee, artificial sweeteners or sugary drinks)? Did you eat at really regular intervals? (You know I love my bowel routines!)
  • Did you notice any trends? Did you always go to the bathroom when you had the littlest urge? Was most of your leaking with coughing or sneezing? Does running water send you running to the bathroom? Did you always have a bowel movement after your morning coffee?

As you can see, so much wonderful information can be gleaned from these diaries, so if you’re having problems, get started today! Knowledge is power, and once we become aware and identify trends in our habits, we can make the changes needed to really help us get the most out of our bodies!

If you want to get started today, try using one of these free templates available online (John Hopkins’ Bladder Diary, Continence Foundation Diary, or Movicol’s “Choose your Poo!” Diary) There are also wonderful apps available now for tracking bowel/bladder function! This is a sample of a diary I frequently use in the clinic (see below).

Bladder Diary

So, get tracking! And, on a serious note– don’t forget that these diaries can also help to determine if you are having a more serious problem, so please, please please, see your health care provider for an evaluation if you are having the types of problems we discussed today!

Happy Wednesday!

~Jessica