I don’t know if you’ve realized it– but the pelvic floor has become crazy popular! This article by The Guardian was published 2 months ago. 3 different patients and a few friends forwarded it to me, as it highlights just how popular pelvic floor rehabilitation has become. And I’m not surprised. When I first started treating pelvic floor disorders, nearly every patient who came in the door had never heard of the pelvic floor, let alone, a physical therapist who treated the pelvic floor. They would look at me with a perplexed and nervous gaze as I would do my best to explain the anatomy and why there really was a GREAT reason that their doctor had recommended them to come see me. This situation repeated itself again, and again, and again.
But now, it’s actually a much more foreign experience. For the most part, my patients have some level of knowledge about the pelvic floor muscles. The internet and social media has allowed people more access to knowledge– including experts who make informative Tik-tok videos, infographics and blog posts 🙂 on their diagnoses and treatment options. This has created more informed consumers who are learning more about their health, care about their wellness, and are seeking to find the best answers for their care.
In fact, it now very rare for for someone to come in and tell me they’ve never heard of pelvic floor rehabilitation. And that is AMAZING my friend.
When I first moved to Atlanta in 2014, I could count the number of pelvic PTs in the area on one hand. Now?? The last time I counted, there were more than 30 of us. I’m sure that number is closer 50 or even more (I know this because nearly every level 1 pelvic floor course I teach has at least a few Atlanta based people in it!!). And while, again, this is amazing– it’s only barely scratching the surface of what is actually needed!
The reality is that pelvic floor problems are super common, and people dealing with pelvic floor problems are often struggling to find care! Look at some of these numbers:
So… while we are serving so so many more people than we used to, we are just scratching the surface! If you are new to this blog, and want to read a little bit more to start learning about the pelvic floor, check out some of these posts:
Also, if this is resonating with you, and you’re feeling like you may need some help, reach out and let us know!! You don’t need to be one of those statistics– you can get relief, you can feel better! And if you’re not ready to see someone in person, check out some of our mini-courses online on pelvic floor topics!
You all know by now that I’m fairly nerdy. I love reading research articles, trying to understand complex topics, and everything about learning. Honestly, I think that is why I love pelvic health so much! The pelvis is so complicated! There’s so much to know, and the more I learn, the more I truly realize how much more there is to know! As an anatomy nerd, you know I have favorite muscles. I’ve written about the respiratory diaphragm, who is one of my most favorites, but I haven’t spent much time introducing you to my other love~ the obturator internus!
Meet the Obturator Internus
The Obturator Internus (Or OI, as they are known by friends) is a muscle that lives inside your pelvis in the obturator foramen and attaches to the hip via the greater trochanter. You can see it here:
The OI has several major functions for the body. First, it is a deep hip external rotator, and has shown to be active during the movements of hip extension, external rotation and abduction. In fact, this research showed that it was the first muscle to turn on in these motions (which I theorize could be part of it’s connection to the pelvic floor muscles and the anticipatory role the pelvic floor has in movement, pressure management and postural stability). My theory on this makes sense when we look at some of the research on the involvement of the OI in hip stability. This excellent article identifies the obturator internus & externus, quadratus femoris, and gemelli as important synergistic muscles that work together to modulate the position of the femoral head in the acetabulum during movement. This is particularly cool because in many ways, this function is very similar to the pelvic floor muscles! The authors suggest a dynamic stabilizing role for these muscles, making subtle alterations in force to control the femoral head position.
This study also recognizes the stabilizing role the OI can play, particularly when it works as a team with the other deep hip rotators. The authors here highlight that the obturator internus, obturator externus, superior & inferior gemelli (who I affectionately call the gemelli brothers) are essentially fused. And this fusion, actually leads to a decent cross-sectional area and ability for force generation. The orientation of the fibers adds further credence to the view that these muscles are crucial to hip stability.
The OI shares fascial connections and attachments with the pelvic floor muscles, which makes it an even more unique muscle. The iliococcygeus attaches to the arcus tendoneus linea alba, a fascial line that is also an attachment of the obturator internus. Additionally, the pubococcygeus and OI are fascially connected around the pubic bone, and the fascia around the bladder and urethra also is connected to the OI. What does this mean? It means that the OI can be impacted by what happens at the pelvic floor and can impact what happens at the pelvic floor. And research tends to show this. This study showed that the vast majority of people with pelvic girdle pain have obturator internus tenderness. This study found that most people with chronic pelvic pain have obturator internus tenderness with palpation. And here’s another study that found that 45% of people with pelvic pain had tenderness at the obturator internus. Another study found that in people with lumbopelvic pain, experiencing urinary urgency, and central sensitization made them 2x more likely to have concurrent pelvic floor and OI involvement.
Finding the Obturator Internus
One of the cool things about the OI is that it is a muscle that can be palpated both internally via the vagina or rectum, and also externally. The OI is palpated internally with an examining finger angling out toward the hip. You can see the palpation here on my lovely pelvic model.
The OI can also be palpated by examining medial to the ischial tuberosity, then angling in toward the obturator foramen. You can see where palpation would be happening here.
Treating the Obturator Internus
If you think your Obturator Internus is involved in the pain or pelvic floor problems you’re experiencing, the first step is to have it examined. Your PT can palpate these muscles as described above. The muscles should be soft and move well, so they should not be sensitive or painful to touch. If they are, they could potentially be involved in the pelvic problems you are experiencing.
From a treatment standpoint, we can address the OI by first improving the mobility via gentle manual therapy, and then improving the overall hip stability (retraining the anticipatory function through the relationship between the pelvic floor & OI). It usually isn’t the “sole” problem happening. But including it within your treatment can be key to helping you get better!
Bowel problems are so frustrating. Let’s be real. Constipation remains the #1 GI complaint in the country and impacts millions of people (pun unintended, but I’ll take it!). I love writing about pooping, and we love treating poop problems at Southern Pelvic Health (both virtually & in-person!!). The cool thing about poop, is that often the smallest changes in our habits can make BIG differences. A lot of this is due to the physiology of the digestive tract. Our habits—what we do during the day—can hugely impact this physiology, and that’s what I want to talk with you about today.
How do you maximize the efficiency of your digestive system and build a stellar bowel routine so you can poop better?
To understand this, let’s look at the digestive system a little more closely.
When you eat food, digestion begins in the mouth. Chewing helps to break up the food, and your saliva begins to break down the nutrients. Chewing alone is an essential part of digestion. In fact, most of us don’t tend to chew enough. I’ve been there! Years of working as a physical therapist at busy practices, led to a habit of inhaling my food rather than eating slowly and actually enjoying the process. Did you know that in order to adequately digest an almond, you have to chew that almond over 20 times? I learned that a few years ago when I interviewed Jessica Drummond- an incredible clinical nutritionist who also happens to be a pelvic PT. You can see the whole interview here if you’re interested!
After we swallow our food, the food travels down the esophagus into the stomach. Here, the stomach churns the food, mixing it with acid and juices and continues the process of digestion. When food enters the stomach, this triggers an important reflex called the gastrocolic reflex, which pushes prior meals and snacks through the rest of the digestive tract. This reflex is SUPER important to know to help stimulate regular movement in the GI system.
The food then exits the stomach and enters the small intestines. Did you know that if you uncoiled your small intestines, they would be 20 feet long? The intestines are where the majority of digestion occurs. Juices from the pancreas and gall bladder are added in here to aid in processing our nutrients. Food moves throughout these coils, then enters into the large intestine via the ileocecal valve.
The large intestine, or colon, is the major water recycling plant in the body. The colon recycles about 70% of the fluid we take in to use throughout the body. It continuously removes fluid from our stool…. So, what do you think happens if you don’t drink enough fluid? Or what do you think happens if your colon moves a little too slowly? Yep, that’s right. You end up with hard and dehydrated stool. When stool enters into the last part of the colon, the rectum, the stretching of the walls of the rectum trigger another reflex. First, an incredible reflex called the “sampling response” takes place. In this reflex, a small amount of contents are allowed to enter the anal canal. Your nerves here sense what is present, and tell your brain if the contents are liquid, gas or solid. (Amazing, right?!) Now, this reflex can sometimes be dysfunctional. So, if you struggle with feeling a strong need to poop, and when you get to the bathroom, it’s only gas? That’s this reflex. OR, if you feel like you have some gas to release, and when you release it, it’s actually a little bit of stool? That’s a sampling problem as well. And guess what—we can actually do things to retrain and improve this reflex.
As the stool is filling the rectum, and stretch occurs, the brain will receive the message of what is in the rectum, and gets to decide what to do about it. If there is just gas, you may choose to release it or wait a bit to release it. If it is liquid, your brain knows you better get to the bathroom QUICK! Liquid stool is hard to hold back for too long—the muscles fatigue—THIS is why chronic diarrhea can lead so often to bowel accidents! And if the stool is solid, you can actually defer and postpone the urge, until an appropriate time to go. The challenge there is that postponing frequently can make it so the muscular walls of the colon help you less when it is actually time to go to the bathroom.
When it is an appropriate time to go, you then sit on the toilet, relax your pelvic floor muscles, and this stimulates a defecation reflex which will allow the rectum to empty via the anal canal. Sometimes, we need to generate some pressure to assist this process, and sometimes, the muscular walls of the colon take care of it themselves.
So, let’s get down to it.
How do you use the process of digestion to build your bowel routine?
Step 1: Eat at regular intervals during the day to regularly stimulate your gastrocolic reflex.
Remember, this pushes things through the system, so it needs to happen often. The colon LOVES consistency, and HATES change. So, skipping meals? Eating really large meals sometimes, then nothing the rest of the day? All of this can impact your bowel function.
Step 2:Slow down & chew your meals.
Remember, chewing begins digestion, so, stop what you’re doing and eat mindfully and peacefully. Also, digestion requires a lot of parasympathetic activity—this is your resting & relaxing nervous system—so, slowing down and making time to eat can help stimulate that too.
Step 3:If you need the bowels to move better, eat “bowel stimulating” foods/drinks around the time of day you normally go to the bathroom.
What stimulates the bowels? Warm drinks (especially coffee—because the caffeine is actually an irritant to the GI tract!) are a great place to start. Also, spicy foods can help stimulate the GI system to move.
Step 4:Sit on the toilet around the same time each day, preferably, after a meal.
Remember that gastrocolic reflex? That reflex is helping to move things through the system, so after a meal is a great time to spend a few minutes relaxing on the toilet.
Step 5: Exercise!
Yep, exercise also stimulates the peristalsis of the GI tract! So, aim to get in regular bouts of exercise. And, it doesn’t need to be too extreme? Even going on a 10 minute walk can help get things moving.
What does this actually look like in practice? Here’s a sample routine!
Jane wakes up in the morning and takes the dogs on a short 10 minute walk. She gets home and makes a cup of coffee and her breakfast. She eats breakfast slowly, taking time to chew her food. (Jane also makes sure that she is getting plenty of fiber and whole fruits/veggies in her diet—because this matters too for her stool consistency!). After breakfast, Jane goes and sits on the toilet. She sits in a nice comfortable position, relaxes, breathes, and thinks about her day—spending 5 minutes without trying to force anything to happen. After a few minutes, she starts to feel the need to have a bowel movement. She uses what she learned in the “How to Poop” article, and gently pushes with good mechanics to assist her rectum in emptying her bowels. Jane then goes about her day, eating small amounts every few hours to stimulate her GI system.
Now, it’s your turn my friend! How is your bowel routine? What can you change to actually use your physiology and poop better?
Falling in love is an incredible feeling, isn’t it? One we don’t tend to forget very quickly. At least, that’s how it was for me and Neuroscience. I remember clearly when the falling in love started to take place. Junior year in college, reading a book called by V.S. Ramachadran, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind,
for my Neuroanatomy and Physiology of Human Movement class. I remember being glued to that book from cover to cover, only stopping briefly to write down a quick quote or call my parents to tell them the amazing piece of information I just learned (Yes, I still call them to tell them fun things like that :))
The amazing thing, that I’m sure you are realizing too, is that our brains are simply incredible. We have the ability to take in millions of tiny pieces of information in microseconds, integrate it within everything we believe to be true about our world and the universe and then make decisions on what that information means. It’s incredible, really. But did you know that this ultimate perception can lead to misinformation? Did you know your brain can really really mess with you?
One of the most well-known tricks of the brain is an optical illusion. Do you see a bunny or a duck?
Which square is darker, A or B? (They’re actually the same color!)
So, how did your brain trick you? Your nervous system is constantly gathering information about the body and the environment through multiple different inputs: visual, mechanical, temperature, proprioceptive (the position of your joints), vestibular (your inner ear). This process is called sensation. Perception, then, is your brain’s interpretation of the information it receives. The brain receives and filters the information from various sensors and then interprets its meaning to create our experience. In these cases, your brain receives the signal (visual input) and then perceives meaning based on the information, and your experience. In the first picture, your brain likely can see either a duck or a bunny depending on how it chooses to interpret the information. In the second one, your brain took into account the shadow that the green cylinder was casting on the board– thus, your brain tricked you into thinking that tile B must be lighter than tile A (although, really they are the same!) And the third one, your brain saw the arrows in the first one as narrowing in the space, and the second as expanding it–even though the lines are the same length. Pretty cool, right?!
I have always loved a good magic trick. I remember seeing my first “real” magic show in Las Vegas at Harrah’s Casino. I was 11 or 12 I think, and was completely mesmerized by Mac King and his comedy magic show. My family just loved it! We were amazed, and couldn’t figure out how he did what he did.
(This is actually pretty close to what that magic show looked and felt like–so enjoy being transported back to 12-year old Jessica’s life!)
I still love watching a great magic show. From street magicians like David Blaine to bigger than life magicians like David Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy, magicians have the ability to suspend our belief, challenge our perceptions and allow us to believe we are seeing the impossible.
So what are magic tricks? How do they feel so “real” to us watching?
In a way, magic tricks are very similar to optical illusions. Magicians are truly masters at using the brain to fool us into truly seeing something that did not happen. Magic tricks work based on several key principles. First, as we discussed above, your brain constantly creates perceptions based on the sensory inputs it receives from the environment. As was shown in our “illusions” section, the perception does not always directly match the visual input as our brain integrates vision with our previous knowledge, emotions, experiences, etc. to make predictions and ultimately create perception. These predictions are precisely what is exploited during magic tricks. This great article gives the example of the “vanishing ball” trick. In this trick, the magician throws the ball up in the air several times, and finally on the last one, the ball appears to vanish out of the air. But did it really vanish? Of course not! The magician used our brain’s predictions in his favor…thus, we saw the magician continuing to look up toward the ball, we saw the hand move in a “throwing pattern.” and the brain cut a few corners to tell us the ball had been thrown! While we’re busy watching that magician’s face, the ball is then palmed away, and our brain perceives it has vanished! Pretty cool, right? (check out the article for a larger, more detailed explanation!)
Magic tricks also work by confusing our brain with conflicting inputs and playing with our attention. For example, we are much more easily tricked and distracted when we have to multitask and focus on multiple different things at once. This is common with card tricks and other illusions. Emotions (such as humor, story-telling, etc) can also lead to some brain-trickery as it again creates a distraction for the brain, forcing the brain to “predict” to fill in the missing pieces.
It’s really, quite incredible, and learning about all of this actually has made me respect magicians even more as fellow neuroscientists! Check out these excellent articles if you want to dive a little deeper and further understand more of what happens with magic tricks!
Now…You may be thinking… “What the heck Jessica? This is a “pelvic-focused” blog! Why are you writing about optical illusions and magic tricks!?” Well my dear blog reader, you’ll have to find out… Stay tuned for Part 2- Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You: Pain
I am thrilled today to have my colleague and friend, Seth Oberst, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS (that’s a lot of letters, right?!), guest blogging for me. I have known Seth for a few years, and have consistently been impressed with his expansive knowledge and passion for treating a wide range of patient populations (from men and women with chronic pain, to postpartum moms, and even to high level olympic athletes!) Recently, Seth started working with me at One on One in Vinings/Smyrna, which is super awesome because now we get to collaborate regularly in patient care! Since Seth started with us, we have been co-treating several of my clients with pelvic pain, diastasis rectus, and even post-surgical problems, and Seth has a unique background and skill set which has been extremely valuable to my population (and in all reality, to me too!). If you live in the Atlanta area, I strongly recommend seeing Seth for any orthopedic or chronic pain problems you are having–he rocks! So, I asked Seth to guest blog for us today…and he’ll be talking about your diaphragm, rib cage position, and the impact of this on both the pelvis and the rest of the body! I hope you enjoy his post! ~ Jessica
The muscles of the pelvic floor and the diaphragm (our primary muscle of breathing) are mirror images of each other. What one does so does the other. Hodges found that the pelvic floor has both postural and respiratory influences and there’s certainly a relationship between breathing difficulty and pelvic floor dysfunction. (JR note: We’ve chatted about this before, so if you need a refresher, check out this post) So one of the best ways we can improve pelvic floor dysfunction is improving the way we breathe and the position of our ribcage. Often times, we learn to breathe only in certain mechanical positions and over time and repetition (after all we breathe around 20,000 times per day), this becomes the “normal” breathing posture.
Clinically, the breathing posture I see most commonly is a flared ribcage position in which the ribs are protruding forward. This puts the diaphragm in a position where it cannot adequately descend during inhalation so instead it pulls the ribs forward upon breathing in. The pelvis mirrors this position such that it is tipped forward, causing the muscles of the pelvic floor to increase their tension. (JR note: We see this happen all the time in men and women with pelvic pain!) Normal human behavior involves alternating cycles of on and off, up and down, without thinking about it. However, with stress and injury we lose this harmony causing the ribs to stay flared and the pelvis to stay tilted. Ultimately this disrupts the synchrony of contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and pelvic floor, particularly when there is an asymmetry between the right and left sides (which there often is).
Jessica has written extensively on a myriad of pelvic floor issues (this IS a pelvic health blog, after all) that can be caused by the altered control and position of the rib cage and pelvis that I described above. But, these same altered positions can cause trouble up and down the body. Here are a few ways:
Shoulder problems: The ribcage is the resting place for the scapulae by forming a convex surface for the concave blades. With a flared, overextended spine and ribs the shoulder blades do not sit securely on their foundation. This is a main culprit for scapular winging (something you will often see at the local gym) because the muscles that control the scapulae are not positioned effectively. And a poorly positioned scapula leads to excessive forces on the shoulder joint itself often causing pain when lifting overhead.
Back pain: When stuck in a constant state of extension (ribs flared), muscles of the back and hips are not in a strong position to control the spine subjecting the back to higher than normal forces repeatedly over time. This often begins to manifest with tight, toned-up backs that you can’t seem to loosen with traditional “stretches”.
Hip impingement: With the pelvis tilted forward, the femurs run into the pelvis more easily when squatting, running, etc. By changing the way we control the pelvis (and by association the rib cage), we can create more space for the hip in the socket decreasing the symptoms of hip impingement (pinching, grinding sensation in groin/anterior hip). For more on finding the proper squat stance to reduce impingement, read this.
Knee problems: An inability to effectively control the rib cage and pelvis together causes increased shearing forces to the knee joint as evidenced in this study. Furthermore, when we only learn to breathe in certain positions, it reduces our ability to adapt to the environment and move variably increasing our risk for injury.
Foot/ankle: The foot and pelvis share some real estate in the brain and we typically see a connection between foot control and pelvic control. So if the pelvis is stuck in one position and cannot rotate to adapt, the foot/ankle complex is also negatively affected.
So, what can we do about this? One of the most important things we can do is learn to expand the ribcage in all directions instead of just in the front of the chest. This allows better alignment by keeping the ribs down instead of sacrificing position with every breath in. Here are few ideas to help bring the rib cage down over the pelvis and improve expansion. These are by no means complete:
**JR Note: These are great movements, but may not be appropriate for every person, especially if a person has pelvic pain and is at an early stage of treatment (or hasn’t been treated yet in physical therapy). For most clients, these exercises are ones that people can be progressed toward, however, make sure to consult with your physical therapist to help determine which movements will be most helpful for you! If you begin a movement, and it feels threatening/harmful to you or causes you to guard your muscles, it may not be the best movement for you at the time.
**JR Note: This squat exercise is very similar to one we use for men and women with pelvic pain to facilitate a better resting state of the pelvic floor. It’s wonderful–but it does lead to a maximally lengthened pelvic floor, which can be uncomfortable sometimes for men and women who may have significant tenderness/dysfunction in the pelvic floor (like occurs in men and women with pelvic pain in the earliest stages of treatment).
Here’s another one I use often from Quinn Henoch, DPT:
Our ability to maintain a synchronous relationship between the rib cage and pelvis, predominantly thru breathing and postural control, will help regulate the neuromuscular system and ultimately distribute forces throughout the system. And a balanced system is a resilient and efficient one.
Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT is a colleague of Jessica’s at One on One Physical Therapy in Atlanta, GA. He works with a diverse population of clients from those with chronic pain and fatigue to competitive amateur, CrossFit, professional, and Olympic athletes. Dr. Oberst specializes in optimizing movement and behavior to reduce dysfunction and improve resiliency, adaptability, and self-regulation.
I can’t help it. Every time I think scar, I think… Scar (and yes, I used to have a much better picture of Scar from The Lion King for you…but I had to remove it in my attempt to make sure I’m not violating anyone’s copyright laws!) I was going to try to think of some funny way to explain why scars and Scar are the same… but I can’t… I relate it to the 50,000 times I have watched The Lion King... so I’ll leave it at that.
Scars can be a big pain though– literally! I have treated women who even after several years cannot tolerate pressure on a c-section scar. Men who have nice huge abdominal scars that ultimately contribute to problems with constipation. And moms who have discomfort near their perineal tears every time they have sexual intercourse. The truth is that scar tissue is often something skilled physical therapists will evaluate and treat as part of a comprehensive program in men and women with pelvic floor dysfunction(and really, with any type of problem!). And the best part– treating scar tissue can make HUGE differences!
So, what is a scar?
When there is an initial injury (and yes, a surgical incision is an “injury”), the body goes through three phases of healing: Inflamation, Proliferation and Remodeling. Through this process, the body creates scarring to close up the initial injury. Scars are composed of a fibrous protein (collagen) which is the same type of tissue that is in the tissue the body is repairing (i.e. skin, etc). The difference, however, is that scars are not quite organized the same way as the tissues they replace, and they don’t really do the job quite as well. (i.e. scars are much more permeable to UV rays than skin is). Scars can form in all tissues of the body– even the heart forms scar tissue after someone has a heart attack (myocardial infarction).
How do scars lead to problems?
After the inflammation and proliferation stage of healing, comes the remodeling. This stage can take months to years! During this time, the body is slowly adapting and changing the scar to the stresses on the tissue. Have you ever noticed that some scars initially are pink and raised and then over time become light/white and flat? That’s remodeling. Ultimately, there are a few major reasons why a person might develop pain from a scar:
Adhesions: Scars are not super selective when it comes to tissues they adhere to. So, sometimes, scars will adhere to lots of tissues around them and this pull can lead to discomfort.
Sensitivity: Scars can become very sensitive for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, small nerves can be pulled on by the scar which can lead to irritation. Other times, people themselves will have a significant amount of fear related to the scar. This fear, can often make people avoid touching the scar, and that, along with what we know about how our brain processes fear and pain (See this post, this one, and this one), can lead to a brain that is veeerrrryyy sensitive to the scar. Along with this, muscles near scars can become tender and sensitive. This can occur due to the scar pulling on the muscle or due to the sensitive nerves in the area.
Weakness/Poor Muscle firing: So, we know that when our tissues are cut, the muscles around the tissues are inhibited (have you ever seen someone after a knee replacement? It can be quite a bit of work to get those muscles to fire immediately after surgery). That’s why it’s important to get the right muscles firing and moving once a person is safely healed. Moving the right muscles improves blood flow too which promotes healing.
There are several ways physical therapists can help decrease pain from scars. Can we actually break-up/melt/eliminate scar tissue? I don’t really think so– honestly, scars are made from strong material and truly breaking up the scar is typically something that has to be done surgically– but most of the time, that is not necessary. We can decrease pain from scars by:
Improving the mobility of the scar: Gentle techniques to massage the scar and the tissues around the scar can facilitate blood flow to the area and decrease some of the pulling on the tissues around it. There is a thought as well that scar tissue massage can disrupt the fibrotic tissue and improve pliability of the scar (basically, help the scar organize itself a little better, and ultimately move better), and help to promote decreased adhesions of the scar to the tissues around it. Unfortunately, there really is not a lot of great research out there about scar tissue massage. However, this review published in 2012 found that 90% of people with post-surgical scars who were treated by scar massage saw an improvement in either the appearance of the scar or their overall function–which is very promising!
Desensitizing the scar and the nervous system: This is where I think we can make huge changes–both by improving someone’s worries/fears about the scar (calming the nervous system) and by slowly desensitizing the scar and the skin around the scar to touch. This is a slow process, but over time, many people who initially can barely tolerate pressure on the scar can be able to easily touch and move the scar without discomfort.
Promoting movement: So, we talked about how muscles can become inhibited or tender after a surgery? Part of improving scar tissue related pain is helping the muscles around the scar move well and learn to fire again. This can include some soft tissue treatment to the muscles to reduce the tenderness of the muscles, but ultimately leads to learning to use the muscles again in a variety of movement patterns. Movement is amazing for the body and can not only improve blood flow, but decrease pain too!
Wanna learn more?
Several of my colleagues have written wonderful information about scar tissue! Check out this great, article and free handout by Kathe Wallace, PT on abdominal scar massage! My colleagues at the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center have also written a few blogs on scars, which you can find here and here.
For the past few years, my studies in pelvic health have taken me further and further outside of the pelvis. I have learned and continue to learn how amazingly interconnected our bodies actually are. The pelvis can be influenced by the ankle, the knees—and even the neck! It is amazing and awe-inspiring. This past weekend, my studies took me to the Level 1 Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), where I spent 2 days learning a systematic way to evaluate movement and identify where dysfunctional patterns exist—head to toe! (How awesome is that?!) There are many different systems and programs out there for evaluating someone’s movement, and honestly, I don’t necessarily think one is superior to the other. I liked this one though, as it made sense to me and the initial screen could be completed in 2 minutes :).
So, why is it important to look globally at human movement when a person is experiencing pain anywhere in the body? For lots of reasons, like I said above—but for the purpose of today’s post—because we now know that movement patterns do really change when a person is experiencing pain—and this is helpful initially and important—remember, your brain wants to protect you from experiencing harm! However, dysfunctional movement patterns, although helpful to the body in that moment, can persist and lead to further problems down the road.
Paul Hodges (a favorite researcher of mine!) and Kylie Tucker examined the current theories regarding movement adaptations to pain in a 2011 review published in the International Association for the Study of Pain. They looked at the current research regarding movement variations in pain, and frankly poked holes in the theories where holes needed poking. They then presented a new theory on the motor adaptations to pain, and that’s what I would like to share with you today.
The theory they presented is based on the premise that movement adaptations occur to reduce pain and protect the painful part. The way in which a person does that actually varies and is flexible. Here are the basics of their theory, simplified, of course. I do encourage you to read the paper if you’re interested—it’s great!
Adaptation to pain involves redistribution of activity within and between muscles. Basically, the brain varies which pools of motoneurons fire in a muscle based on the individual and the task requirement. The common goal still is to protect the painful part from pain or injury, but the way the body does this can vary greatly. Interestingly, we know that the motoneurons active before and during pain tend to reduce activity, and the production of force actually seems to be maintained by a new population of units who were previously inactive. Normally, motoneuron units are recruited from smaller to larger pools to allow for a gradual increase in force—but in pain, a person often will have earlier recruitment of larger pools to basically allow for a faster development of force to get away from pain (think fight or flight response!). Also, the new population of active units may be altered to change the direction of the force generated by the muscle (again, aiming to help protect the painful structure). We also can see in some areas, like the trunk, that one muscle may become inhibited (like the transverse abdominis) while other larger muscles become more activated. This again, makes sense with the body’s goal of protection. Quick activation of larger motor units allows for a quick activation of a muscle to help protect and escape pain.
Adaptation to pain changes mechanical behavior. Basically, like we just discussed, the redistribution of activity within and between muscles changes the force and output of the muscle. Hodges & Tucker give us a few examples of this. First, they’ve found that when someone has knee pain, the quadriceps muscles fire differently to change the direction of knee extension by a few degrees. They also explain that the changes in muscle firing in the trunk muscles in someone with back pain leads to more stiffness and less control of movements and less anticipatory action. Basically, in each of these cases, the big picture motion stays the same, but there are small changes within how the body accomplishes those tasks.
Adaptation to pain leads to protection from pain or injury, or threatened pain or injury. Basically, this redistribution of muscle firing is done to protect against pain—or even the threat of pain. When a person experiences pain, the brain choses a new pattern to move to either splint the injured area, reduce the movement of the area, or alter the force on the area. The interesting piece here is that the body responds this way even when there is a perceived threat of pain! The key with all of this is that the adaptation varies significantly—not one pattern is seen for all types of pain, but the nervous system has a variety of options for protection!
Adaptation to pain involves changes at multiple levels of the motor system. So, although we know that the activation of motoneuron pools can change during pain, that alone does not describe the variability we see. We know now that the way the body changes movement can be influenced by structures in the brain, spinal cord or at the local level of the motoneuron. All of this is going to be influenced by the task at hand and the individual (thoughts about the pain, emotions, stressors, and previous experiences)
Adaptation to pain has short-term benefit, but with potential long-term consequences. Although the short-term benefit is protection of the painful area and prevention of further pain, this may lead to consequences down the road if the adaptation persists. Of course, we assume in this case that movement in a non-pain state is likely the most efficient and optimal way to move. So, changes over time could produce decreased movement variability, modified joint loading, modifications in walking patterns, joint load and ligamentous stress. Hodges and Tucker state that in order for these long-term consequences to occur, there would likely need to be a gradual maintaining of the compensation, thus that the nervous system did not recognize it being problematic. Basically, the brain slowly adapts to the new pattern and does not recognize the problems it could cause down the road.
Interesting stuff right? The tricky thing is, we don’t really know for certain how these long-term changes can impact the body—but we do know that one of the biggest risks for injury is previous injury. I can’t help but think that movement changes could possibly contribute. But how do we change this in a positive way? I think the first step is understanding pain, learning what pain is and what pain is, and developing a healthy mindset toward pain—this alone goes a long way! We also have to look closely at our own emotions, our psychological state, our previous experiences, and understand how all of these things can influence how are brain chooses to respond to pain. But then, we need to identify which movements the body has changed, understand how the brain is varying movements to protect against pain, and then slowly provide variability with good force modulation in those movements to help the brain learn optimal, safe and pain-free ways to move again.
What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
I love reading blogs about pelvic health, the human body, chronic pain, movement, neuroscience–and especially get excited if these things get combined together. Periodically, I’d love to simply do a blog on blogs, so that is what you get today. Basically, it is a quick list of blogs, journal articles, random articles, and possibly books that I am reading right now. There are SO many great things out there. I hope you enjoy, and have a great friday! 🙂
1. The Pudendal Neuralgia Wrecking Ball. Of the different diagnoses in the chronic pelvic pain world, pudendal neuralgia is often a scary one for a patient to hear. Not because it’s untreatable–it IS treatable. But simply, because , and unfortunately, many patients with this type of problem (like SO many other problems related to pelvic pain) are often misdiagnosed many times before receiving help and assurance, and often find scary and less than assuring things when researching online (leading to high levels of worry and fear). So, this article on US News and Reports came out recently. As pelvic PTs, we always love to have big news websites post information to bring awareness to pelvic pain problems. But we took some issue with exactly how that was done and some of the information which was provided…which lead to this excellent response by Stephanie Prendergast, PT of the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in California (If you don’t follow their blog, you really should! They consistently put out fantastic, high quality information.) And then, led to this response by Sara Sauder, PT, who writes her own blog, focusing all on pelvic pain (it’s great too!). Read these posts–they have great information in them!
2. Can’t Get Enough of the Diaphragm. March was really the month of the diaphragm. Not only did you get my post on the 6 reasons why the diaphragm is the coolest muscle ever, but Ginger Garner (who also has a great blog with a big emphasis on women’s health) went into great detail on this post, expanding on how important the breath really is. I’ve written a lot recently on the importance of breathing with movement and coordinating the breath with other muscle activation, but is holding the breath ever a good strategy? Julie Wiebe gave great insight into that in this post here. (And you know Julie posts awesome stuff!).
3. Movement Variability. As humans, we are designed for movement. Typically when people have pain, their movement patterns become more rigid, and they can often develop alterations where their bodies are guarding movements by pain. Retraining slow, controlled motions with a lot of variations is an important component of treatment! For those without pain, movement variety is key to keeping healthy bodies! That’s why I loved this post by Katy Bowman (my favorite biomechanist) on sitting variations while playing with her child.
4. Share MayFlowers: Women’s Health Awareness. My list would not be complete without a shout-out to Jessica McKinney’s excellent work with Share MayFlowers. SMF is a public health initiative aimed at improving awareness in Women’s Health, and Jessica has been posting excellent information all month long! She highlights women who are doing fantastic things to support WH initiatives, and links to great blogs, articles, etc. out there! A few of my faves from this month are this New York Times article which discussed an innovative form of sex education for adolescents, and this post, bringing awareness of obstetric fisulas.
Hope you enjoy! Now it’s your turn– what are you reading? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Earlier this week, I asked the Twitter and Facebook PT world a simple question:
What are the common misconceptions you hear about the body?
My initial goal was a fun blog post on common misconceptions about anatomy, etc…but I was not prepared for the huge response I received—over 40 responses with SO many different things that people often misunderstand! Some pelvic, some general—and it made me realize there is SO much bad information out there!! So, what once was one post will become two. Today, we’ll hit on 10 common myths related to the pelvis (you knew I’d start there!). Then stay tuned for a future post hitting other misconceptions related to…well… the rest of the body, fitness, wellness, pain etc. So, here we go:
1. Men don’t have pelvic floor muscles: They do, I promise. And guess what? The anatomy is not quite as different as you would think! The same muscles that contribute to urinary, bowel and sexual function as well as lumbopelvic stability in women do that in men too. Pelvic PTs treat men with incontinence, pelvic pain, constipation, painful sexual intercourse and much more.
2.Vaginas need a lot of work to keep clean. No, they don’t. The Vulva (vagina really just refers to the canal itself) is actually self-cleaning. It does not need to be scrubbed with soap. You can totally just shower and run water over it, and it will be just fine. In fact, scrubbing the vulva can irritate it and even kill the good bacteria that prevent infections! I could say so much more, but you really should just read this article on Pelvic Guru by Sara Sauder, PT and this one by Dr. Jen Gunter.
3. Abdominal pain is always caused by organ problems. Not necessarily. Now, don’t get me wrong, abdominal pain can definitely happen with ovarian cysts, appendicitis, constipation, and much more—but abdominal pain can also happen when the organ is not to blame. This is so common in men and women with chronic pelvic pain. These people often will have very sensitive nervous systems, tender muscles around the pelvis and in the pelvic floor, as well as even neural irritation (lots of nerves run through the abdominal wall!). So, if the organ has been ruled out as a source of pain and the pain persists- it may be worth considering something different.
4. Not having enough sex OR having too much sex OR masturbating too frequently causes pelvic pain. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a patient timidly ask me if there sexual habits or frequency are to blame for their pain. No. Just no. You should be able to have sex as little or as frequently as you want without any problems or pain. Now, being forced to have sex—that may cause a strong protective response of the pelvic floor muscles. But, consensual sexual activity is normal and should be enjoyed by all without worrying about pain. And if you are having pain? Don’t ignore it– go talk with your physician or physical therapist!
5. Tight pelvic floor muscles are healthy pelvic floor muscles. Guess what? Tight ≠ strong. Flexible ≠ weak. Strong ≠ Well-timed. Functional pelvic floor muscles are non-tender, flexible muscles that are able to activate when they should activate (well-timed). We want the pelvic floor to stretch to allow you to poop and have sex, and we want the muscle to activate at the right time with enough strength to help you not leak urine when you cough.
6. If the doctor says “all looks good” 6 weeks after having a baby, it means your body is completely back to normal. Newsflash here, you’re body isn’t really going to go back to being exactly what it was like before the baby. It’s not meant to, and that is ok! It can still be an awesome, strong and well-functioning body– but you do need to take care of it. Remember that urinary or bowel leakage, constipation, persistent low back/pelvic pain, vulvar pain, and pain with sexual activity are NOT normal. If “all looks good” at 6 weeks, but you are having these problems, find a skilled pelvic PT near you to get evaluated and get some help! And even if you are not having these issues—your body has been through a lot! Take time and care in slowly getting your body back into good movements. Also, check out this article by Ann Wendel, PT on 5 myths surrounding the pelvic floor after pregnancy.
7.If a woman had a c-section, her pelvic floor was not impacted, and she doesn’t need to think about it. Guess what the biggest risk factor for urinary incontinence is? PREGNANCY. Although mode of delivery is important, simply being pregnant and carrying a baby puts significant pressure on the pelvic floor. Both vaginal deliveries and c-sections impact the body—remember, a c-section cuts through the abdominal wall! Remember that team of muscles that work together for lumbopelvic stability? The abdominal wall is a KEY member. Regardless of your mode of delivery, seeing a skilled physical therapist after having a baby is crucial to help your musculoskeletal system function optimally, manage unwanted pain or leakage, and get back to the fitness activities you enjoy. And guess what? It’s standard care for all ladies postpartum in many countries around the world.
8. Urinary incontinence is always due to a weak pelvic floor muscle group. I wrote a whole blog on this one, so I recommend you read it here. The short answer is, No. No problem is due to solely one muscle. Our body is a system, and we have to always treat it like that.
9. Hips and sacrums dislocate regularly in some people. This is such a common one too—I’ll have patients come in and say, “My hip keeps ‘going out’ and I have to do this <does weird hip movement> to put it back in.” OR “My SI joint keeps ‘popping out of place.’” Let’s all be honest about this- dislocations of joints do happen, but it tends to be pretty painful, likely traumatic, and if your hip dislocates, you bet you are going to the ER. That “pop” you hear? It’s likely just a joint cavitation- basically a decrease in pressure causes dissolved gasses in the joint fluid to be released into the joint. Same thing happens when you pop your knuckles. If it happens frequently and is associated with pain, talk with a physical therapist.
10. Sucking in the stomach constantly creates a strong “core” and a flat abdomen. You know what creates a flat abdomen? Eating healthy and exercising regularly. Contracting any muscle constantly is not functional, nor does it really do what we want it to do. Sucking in the stomach actually tends to make it more difficult for your diaphragm to move well when you breathe and also can cause the pelvic floor muscles to over contract and become tender/uncomfortable. It can also inhibit movement, and we know moving well with variety is SO key to a happy body. So, relax your stomach and allow yourself to breathe (remember how important that diaphragm is!)
I hope you gained a little insight with this list—it was fun to write! This is by no means an exhaustive list (over 40 responses, remember?), and I’d love to keep the conversation going! Special thanks to my world-wide pelvic health team! It’s so fun collaborating with such a great group!
Have you heard anything else about the body that does not seem to be right? Ask here and we’ll do our best to answer! Physical therapists out there—what are your other favorite myths to de-bunk? Let’s all work to spread accurate knowledge—knowledge really is power! Have a great Wednesday!
I have a small confession to make– I love the study of human anatomy. Always have. It was studying human anatomy and physiology that made me shift my undergraduate degree at Gordon College away from “Biology” and into “Movement Science” (which has now become “Kinesiology”… Who would have known that years later, “Movement Science” would have been the coolest name for a major ever? Am I right fellow PTs?). The human body is fascinating and incredible. So, it should come as no shock to you that I have favorite muscles. In PT school, my favorite muscles were the ones with the most fun names… like the Gemelli brothers (who are small hip external rotators) or Sartorius (a thigh muscle…best, if sung to the tune of “Notorious“). Of course, you know that now the pelvic floor muscle group ranks pretty high on that list…but the diaphragm, well… it just takes the cake. Here are some of the reasons why the diaphragm really is so cool.
1) We can contract our diaphragm voluntarily–but it also will contract without us consciously telling it to. How cool is that? You can activate your diaphragm by taking a long, slow, breath expanding your ribcage 360 degrees and allowing your belly to relax. But, before I brought your attention to your breath, you were using the diaphragm without even thinking about it!
2) The diaphragm helps to mobilize the ribs, lumbar spine and thoracic spine. The diaphragm attaches to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd lumbar vertebrae, the inner part of the lower 6 ribs as well as the back of the sternum at the xiphoid process. The central tendon of the diaphragm then attaches to the 3rd lumbar vertebrae. During inhalation as the diaphragm flattens to allow the lungs to fill with air, the diaphragm will “pull” slightly on each of those attachments, effectively giving you a gentle mobilization. The ribs will also move during inhalation and exhalation to allow space for the lungs to fill.
3) The diaphragm is a key member of a team of muscles which help to create dynamic postural stability. You knew that would be one of my bullets, right? I think I mention this in almost every post…but… the diaphragm works together with the pelvic floor muscles, abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis) and low back muscles (multifidus) to pre-activate and provide support to the body during movement. Together, these muscles make up our “anticipatory core” and are important muscles for healthy pain-free movement patterns. Now, no post on the diaphragm would be complete without an excellent video explanation by Julie Wiebe, PT, who is amazing and has done so much to help advance the understanding of dynamic stability in PT practice.
4)Retraining proper firing of the diaphragm can help to reduce urinary incontinence AND low back pain. Now, that is pretty cool, right? Excellent research by Paul Hodges and colleagues has shown altered firing patterns of the diaphragm in people with low back pain or urinary incontinence. Amazingly, when people re-established proper firing of the diaphragm leading to full excursion, both low back pain and bladder problems reduced This is likely due to the relationship between the pelvic floor and diaphragm in controlling intraabdominal pressure within the abdomen and the pelvis. Proper breathing helps to restore the optimal pressures needed to control movements and support the pelvic organs. This relationship is so huge that problems with breathing and continence are more correlated with low back pain than obesity and physical activity.
5) Slow breathing with the diaphragm can calm down the nervous system. The breath is so connected to the autonomic nervous system. When a person is fearful or anxious, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is activated, and a person will take quick shallow breaths to bring oxygen to the muscles as quickly as possible (think: being chased by a bear) the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is activated when in a more calm or relaxed state (yes, I am oversimplifying all of this… I know). In that state, a person will take slow calm breaths (think: sipping a cup of tea after a great massage). The cool thing is that we can use our breath to help us move toward a more relaxed state. Slow breathing will help calm stress, anxiety and promote a person being in a more parasympathetic state. And guess what? There’s an app for that! The Breathe2Relax app for iphone/android allows a person to program in his or her breath and then takes you through a guided breathing exercise.
6) Slow breathing with the diaphragm can reduce pelvic pain. As we discussed previously, the pelvic floor and diaphragm are coordinated and work together to control pressures through the pelvis. As the diaphragm is activated during inhalation, the pelvic floor relaxes to accept the contents of the abdomen/pelvis. As we exhale, the diaphragm returns to its rested position and the pelvic floor activates slightly. Long slow breaths then encourage complete relaxation of the pelvic floor and thus can help decrease pain for people with tender pelvic floor muscles.
So, there you have it! I bet the diaphragm just moved up a few notches on your favorite muscles list (you know you want one!). If you need more reasons, and enjoy “nerding-out” with Anatomy, check out these studies: