Last summer, Sara Sauder asked me to collaborate with her and Amy Stein on a submission to Sexual Medicine Reviews, highlighting the role physical therapy can play in helping men and women with sexual dysfunction. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with Amy and Sara, and for the next year or so, we worked together to create “The Role of Physical Therapy in Sexual Health in Men and Women: Evaluation and Treatment.”
In this article, Amy, Sara and I discuss the role the pelvic floor muscles play in sexual health and common dysfunctions that can occur. We also discuss the process of physical therapy evaluation and treatment for sexual dysfunction, as well as the evidence regarding the efficacy of such treatments. Submitting to a peer-reviewed journal was humbling and exciting, and honestly, gave me much more respect for the process. I have been wanting to get involved with research for some time now, and I hope that this will be a springboard to more involvement and more writing.
The journal gives authors access to full-text of the article for the next 45 days, and I am excited to have the opportunity to share it with all of you!! Please let me know what you think of the article, and enjoy!
About 2.5 years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to join Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute as a Faculty instructor for the Pelvic Health Series. This was an absolute dream come true for me, as I completely love teaching and had always dreamed of teaching continuing education in pelvic health. (Seriously… as a new grad, I remember asking an instructor at a course what advice they had for someday becoming an instructor. Funny story is that I now co-teach with that very instructor!). Teaching in pelvic health has been such a incredible blessing for me– not only do I get to travel across the country and help other clinicians learn to treat my most favorite population of patients, but I also get the opportunity to co-teach with inspiring and incredible experts in pelvic physical therapy.
This past September, I had the opportunity to teach with Sara Reardon, PT, DPT, WCS, BCB-PMD, who is not only an incredible clinician, but is also hilarious, down-to-earth, and passionate about women’s health. One night at dinner, Sara, Darla Cathcart, and I had a long conversation about pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum period, and becoming moms. At one point, I think all of us had tears in our eyes, as we shared our own journeys, challenges we/our family/our patients have had, and our hopes for making everything better. After that chat, I just knew I needed to interview Sara here so all of you have the opportunity to learn from her and feel her passion! I hope you enjoy this interview! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below!
If you would like to see Sara’s work, check her out at www.thevagwhisperer.com. Here, you will find information about seeing Sara in-person, her online therapy options, mentoring options, and her instagram/blog presence!
Happy New Year!
If you want to see all of our expert videos in one place, be sure to check out my youtube channel! This video as well as the others can be found here!
3 years ago, I wrote a post on dyssynergic defecation that over time has become the most viewed post I have ever written. Y’all, people are struggling with pooping. Bowel health is something we all tend to take for granted until it stops working right. So, what is dyssynergia? Basically, dyssynergia refers to a state where your muscles are working against you when you have a bowel movement. Instead of the muscles coordinating well to open and relax to allow the stool to come out, the muscles will contract and fight against the stool coming out. This is a big problem for people struggling with constipation. In fact, this review suggested that around 40% of people with constipation have this problem.
How do you properly poop?
“Why aren’t we ever taught these things?!” I hear this all the time from patients after we discuss the often basic techniques to improve bowel and bladder health. In reality, these habits should be learned and passed down through families, but the reality, more often than not, is that that majority of people do not learn proper habits until problems start happening. So, let’s get started, and get to healthy pooping.
Step 1: Use Optimal Pooping Posture & Positioning
Yes, how you sit on the toilet really does matter. The optimal toilet positioning is one that will allow the muscles around the rectum to relax. This helps to open the angle between the rectum and the anus, and will allow stool to pass more easily. Our friends at Squatty Potty have made major $$$ on this concept with their handy stool. They do have some great videos, and this one listed here gives a nice overview on why a squatted position is more optimal for defecation.
Now, as an aside, should everyone sit with their knees elevated that high on the toilet? That’s going to be a big NO. The optimal position for you may not be the optimal position for the person next to you. The key here is that you need to be as comfortable as possible while sitting on your throne. If your hips hurt, or your back feels tight, etc. when you are squatted like this, change the angle until you find the best position for you.
Step 2: Take Your Time
We all know those people who grab a book and head to the bathroom, only to be seen 30+ minutes later, right? Well, they actually do have the right thought process. Many people get into a pattern of sitting on the toilet and immediately straining and pushing to empty their bowels. This is not often necessary, and actually overrides the normal processes of your colon and rectum. The best habit is actually to 1) Head to the bathroom as soon as you can when you feel the urge to have a BM and 2) Sit and relax on the toilet, giving your body at least 5 minutes to get things moving on its own. If you do need to push or help the body in the process, move on to the next step.
Step 3: If You Need to Push, Push Properly.
Is it ok to sometimes need to push a little to get the poop out? Absolutely! Our bodies are made to be able to do this when needed to assist in getting the stool out. Did you know your GI system actually has several reflexes that aid in pooping? The intrinsic defecation reflex is a reflex that is stimulated when stool enters the rectum. This reflex will trigger the sequence of events that leads to defecation. When this reflex is suppressed (via another reflex, the Recto-anal inhibitory reflex), the colon will be helping you less in getting the stool out. This means that you may need to do a little pushing to assist in the process. So, how do you push?
Proper pushing requires a few things 1) abdominal muscle activation 2) pelvic floor muscle relaxation and 3) breathing. So, if you are holding your breath when you push, that is NOT proper pushing. Before we get started, it can be helpful to test yourself and see what your current habits are. To do this, place your hands on your belly while you sit on the toilet. Perform a fake “push” and see what happens. Did you hold your breath? Did your belly push out into your hands or pull in away from the hands? What did you feel happen at your pelvic floor?
So, now, let’s talk about how to push properly. First, be sure you are in your optimal toileting position. Now, place your hands on your belly and relax your belly forward. Do you feel how relaxing your abdominal wall allows your pelvic floor muscles to also relax? Interestingly enough, the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominis muscles have a neurological relationship. Thus, for the majority of people, these muscles contract together. So, since the transverse abdominis muscle will pull the belly in (leading to pelvic floor muscle contraction), we want to do the opposite–> keep the belly out. Next, with your “belly big,” take a deep slow breath in. Then, as you blow out, think about blowing into your belly, gently tightening the muscles of your abdomen without allowing the belly to draw in. We call this “belly hard.” Lastly, as you are doing this breathing, think about relaxing, lengthening and opening your pelvic floor as you gently bear down (“pelvic floor drop”). So, in summary, this is what we are aiming for:
Belly Big— relax the belly forward and take a breath in.
Belly Hard— As you exhale, push into the belly, tensing the abdominal muscles, but not shortening them!
Pelvic Floor Drop— while you are exhaling, gently bear down, allowing your pelvic floor to open and relax
(Note- several amazing clinicians have developed these concepts and verbiage that best connects with people. Pauline Chiarelli has a great book called Let’s Get Things Moving: Overcoming Constipation, and she discusses this in detail there. “Belly Big, Belly Hard, Pelvic Floor Drop” is a phrase we teach in our H&W Curriculum, and I believe it is also a phrase used by Dawn Sandalcidi, an excellent pelvic PT and faculty member out in Denver, CO.)
Who knew pooping was so complicated?
Please let me know if you have any questions! If you’re a pelvic PT, I would love to hear from you–especially if you have other strategies you like to use to help people learn how to poop! Let me know in the comments!
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!
I am super excited to roll-out the first Small Group Mentoring Program! I envisioned this program starting about a year and a half ago after teaching a Pelvic Floor- Level 1 Course and talking with clinicians who were getting started in the specialty of pelvic health. I sensed such a need for support, guidance, and community as people were building their caseloads treating new diagnoses. So, this program in many ways is an answer to that need. The goal of this program is both to improve clinical confidence and excellence in care as well as foster community for continued professional growth in the future. The inaugural small group mentoring series will begin November 2018 and run through April 2019.
What the program includes:
6-months of small group mentoring (with a maximum of 8 clinicians per group) via monthly 90-min video(Zoom) conferencing on topics individualized based on the group interest. For additional information on the session details, check out the FAQ document at the bottom of this post!
Periodic access to patient education handouts/resources as they match the topic of discussion
Facilitation of group collaboration, discussion and community-building through a private Facebook group page.
Discounted individual mentoring rates while participating in the program
At this time, small group mentoring is limited to Physical Therapists or Occupational Therapists who are licensed to treat patients. I am happy to provide individual mentoring for other health professionals, personal trainers, yoga instructors, etc. but am limiting the scope for small group mentoring to ensure the same background education and scope of practice for clinical discussion. To optimize discussion, it is strongly encouraged that participants have taken at least a Level 1 Pelvic Floor course or equivalent, and are currently treating patients with pelvic floor dysfunction. Physical Therapy students will be considered on a case-by-case basis, provided the student has completed or is currently completing a rotation in pelvic health and has completed the aforementioned coursework.
Your introductory rate as a participant in the inaugural series will be $475. This will include 6, 90 minute group mentoring sessions, or 9 hours of mentoring, as well as all of the items mentioned above! *NOTE: This is an introductory rate, and rates are likely to increase in the future!
The inaugural small group series will be very limited in participants, so please reserve your space as soon as you can! Registration will be open until October 22nd, or until spaces fill! To apply, please complete the application available below and e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.Upon receipt of your application and placement in a group, you will receive an invoice for payment. Payment is required in full by November 1st. Unfortunately, the inaugural session will be limited in number of participants, so not everyone will be able to be accommodated. If this occurs, you will be placed on a waiting list for the next session.
See the video below for some additional information! I look forward to working with many of you in this program!
This past weekend, I was fortunate to work with an incredible group of practitioners at a Level 1 Pelvic Floor Course in my home city of Atlanta. I always leave these weekends renewed, excited, and yes, somewhat exhausted ;-). Not only do I get to teach with some pretty incredible colleagues (in this case, Sara Reardon– the VAGINA WHISPERER!!, and Darla Cathcart–who literally is the reason why I practice pelvic health!), but I also get the opportunity to see the transformation of clinicians who start the weekend a little nervous about the possibility of seeing a vulva, and end the weekend confident and empowered to start helping people who are experiencing pelvic floor problems. (Ok, some may not be 100% confident–but definitely on the road to confidence! ;-))
One of my favorite research studies of all time (yes, I am that nerdy) is always shared at this course with participants. This study by van der Velde and Everaerd examined the response of the pelvic floor muscles to perceived threat, comparing women who have vaginismus (painful vaginal penetration) compared to women who don’t.
Throughout my clinical career, the concept of stress and threat worsening pelvic floor problems has been a consistent thread. I frequently hear:
“My job has been so incredibly stressful this week. I am in so much pain today.”
“Everything started this past year…during that time, my parents had been very sick and it was a very emotionally and sometimes physical stressful time for me”
“I’ve been having a severe flare-up of my pain. Do you think the stress that I’ve been dealing with in going through a divorce/break-up/job change/move/new baby/new house/etc. etc. etc. could be related to this?”
Honestly, I could go on and on with continued statements like this. Stress is a complicated topic, and there are many factors involved that can contribute to an alteration or increase in symptoms when a person is in a persistent stressful situation. So, back to my favorite study. In this study, the researchers had the participants watch four different film excerpts that were considered to be: neutral, threatening, sexually threatening or erotic. They then recorded the response of the pelvic floor muscles using EMG. The results of this study were fascinating. They found that with both the threatening stimulus(which happened to be an excerpt from the movie Jaws) and the sexually threatening stimulus (which was an excerpt from a TV movie called Without her Consent–which frankly, sounds awful to me!) the pelvic floor muscles demonstrated increased muscle activity. And this was true in both the groups of women who had vaginismus and the groups of women who did not. (side note: they also saw that the upper traps had this same activation pattern! Makes sense, right?)
Fascinating right? So, what does this mean? I always tell patients that the pelvic floor can be like a threat-o-meter. When a person is experiencing a threat–this can be a physical or emotional threat– the pelvic floor will respond. You can imagine then what happens when that stressful situation or threat stays around for a long period of time! This knowledge alone can sometimes be so empowering for people in better understanding why their bodies might be responding the way that they are.
So what can we do about it?
If you are dealing with pelvic floor muscle overactivity problems or pain, and you find yourself in a stressful or threatening period of time in life, try these ideas:
Be mindful of what is happening in your body: I encourage people to do regular “check-ins” or body scans throughout the day to feel how their pelvic floor muscles and other muscles might be activating. If you feel any muscles gripping, try to see if you can consciously soften and let go of tension you might feel. After doing this, try to take a slow long breath in and out thinking of letting tension release.
Drop it like it’s hot: Your pelvic floor, that is. Several times throughout the day, consciously think about letting your pelvic floor drop and lengthen. If you have a hard time feeling what your muscles are doing, you can try performing a small (think 10-25%) activation first and then think about letting go of any muscle activity.
Don’t be an island: Know that there are so many resources to help you if you need them! Working with a skilled psychologist or counselor can be incredibly beneficial to many people! And, if your pelvic floor is giving you some problems, always remember that you can go see a pelvic PT– yes, even if you had worked with one in the past! We are always here to help you get through life’s hurdles! Sometimes people end up needing little “refresher courses” along the way to help when the body needs it.
So, what are your favorite ways to manage stress? Fellow PTs- how do you help patients handle flare-ups that happen when life starts to get stressful?
I love to hear from you, and meet you! Always feel free to reach out to me here! If you would like to take a course with me, check out the schedule listed on my For Professionals page! I hope to meet you in person soon!