Tag Archives: Education

Local to Atlanta? Come hang out with me and chat pelvic health at these upcoming events!

Happy Pelvic Pain Awareness Month! I do plan to post a few blogs on pelvic pain over the course of this month, I promise, but I wanted to quickly share with you a few events I am going to be a part of over the next month!

First, next Wednesday, May 15th, I will be the special guest at a FREE pelvic health education event hosted by PLS Yoga and Wholeheart Psychotherapy, “Women’s Pelvic Health: Key Considerations for Health and Wellbeing for Women Living with Pelvic Pain”  The event will run 7-9 pm at 6 Lenox Pt NE in Atlanta! If you are struggling with pelvic pain, please join us for this incredible evening!

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Next, on Sunday June 2nd my colleagues and I will have a booth at the Mama Bear Fair, hosted by Dr. Jamie Michael’s chiropractic clinic in Smyrna! Fitting, as this is just 2 weeks before my due date (I did tell you all I was expecting another baby girl, didn’t I?) Stop in between 3-6pm to chat with me about prenatal/postpartum care and pelvic health! RSVP for the event via Facebook!

mama bear fair

I hope to see some of you at these events! Please feel free to be in touch if you have any questions!

All the best for a happy start of May,

Jessica

Video Interview with Dr. Ken Sinervo: Internationally- Recognized Endometriosis Expert

Happy Endometriosis Awareness Month!

Did you know that Endometriosis affects more people that inflammatory bowel disease?

Did you know that 10-15% of women (and some men too!!) suffer with endometriosis?

Did you know that they often see 7+ physicians before being diagnosed with the condition?

Endometriosis is so common, and often can be a very life-impacting condition. As a pelvic PT, I often treat individuals with endometriosis, helping them with the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular sequelae of the condition. I have also helped many patients navigate the healthcare system to ultimately receive the appropriate care they so desperately have needed.

In honor of Endometriosis Awareness Month, I asked Dr. Ken Sinervo, the medical director for the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta, GA to spend some time with me discussing this important diagnosis. Dr. Sinervo is an expert in treating endometriosis, and I can’t tell you how lucky I am that his office is about 20 minutes from mine! He is also a kind and humble person and a compassionate physician, and I was so excited to interview him for this post!

In the video below, we discuss: 

  • What is endometriosis and where does it occur?
  • What are the current theories on the causes of endo?
  • How can it be treated?
  • Excision vs. Ablation surgery
  • How to find an Endo expert
  • For pelvic PTs: How do you identify patients who may have endo?
  • And, as an extra bonus, cherry on top, Dr. Sinervo describes the research he is involving in trying to identify potential markers to actually test for endometriosis!!

I hope you enjoy the video as much as I enjoyed interviewing him! I apologize in advance if our video cuts out a little bit, but I don’t think it impacts the incredible content (Our weather in Atlanta was a little struggly, so I think my internet had some difficulties!).

 

Your First Visit to See a Pelvic PT

I started writing this post a few different ways. Over the past several years, I have had handouts and brochures detailing out what is included in a first visit with a pelvic PT, but I liked the idea of something a little less formal. So, I started writing a letter to that new pelvic PT patient, and I hope it helps you (and your patients!!) feel more comfortable getting started! 

Hello there soon-to-be pelvic health PT patient:

We are SO thankful you are trusting us in partnering with you in your healing journey. We’re very glad you’re here. I realize that taking this step and actually scheduling a visit with a pelvic floor specialist can be nerve-racking, and you should be quite proud of yourself for taking this important step! I want to take a few minutes to talk with you about your first session in pelvic PT. I find that much of the fear and uncertainty people may feel with a first visit is often connected with this “unknown.” So, I hope today I can take some of that away, so you can feel more comfortable on that first day. So, let’s get started:

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Your arrival to the clinic 

Before you arrive to the clinic, you likely had a good amount of paperwork to fill out (Sorry about that!). Some of it is the standard healthcare type stuff, but there also is a more specific questionnaire. This questionnaire gets fairly personal. You’ll see questions in it about your bladder health (how often you pee? what do you drink? are you leaking urine?), your bowel function (are you constipated? do you strain when you have a bowel movement? do you leak stool?), your sexual function (are you sexually active? do you have difficulties with pain during sexual activity? problems with arousal or orgasm?), and any pain you’re experiencing (where is your pain? what worsens or improves it? how much does it hurt?) I’ll also ask you about your medical history, your medications, and if it applies to you, your history of pregnancies and childbirth, etc. I know this is a lot of detail, but this is very helpful for me in providing your care! Please feel free to put as much or as little detail on this as you feel comfortable doing. We will have a chance to discuss all of this in person.

Nice to meet you, let’s get personal!

After you and I meet, I will take you back to a private room, and we will chat about what’s going on. This is when we’ll talk about your story, what brought you here,  what are the challenges you have been facing, what has been your journey, and what are your goals you want to reach. We’ll also discuss the questions you answered on that detailed questionnaire, and I may ask you some other questions to get more information about the challenges you have been dealing with. I know it can feel a little weird for some people to share details about your bowel habits or sexual function with a person you just met, but believe me, for those of us who practice in this specialty, we talk about these things all the time. As we are chatting, please feel free to tell me anything at all that you think might be important. Don’t hold back…believe me, I most likely have heard all of this before. On that note, please know that I want you to feel comfortable and safe in the clinic, and if you would prefer not to discuss something, that is totally okay too. Just let me know!

Your Exam

After we chat, I will talk with you a little bit about what I think may be going on from a musculoskeletal, movement, and/or behavioral (habits) standpoint. At this point, I usually pull out some images, a model of a pelvis, etc. and will talk with you about what normal anatomy and physiology looks like in the pelvis and about what I think may be happening with the problems you are experiencing. Then, I will let you know what I am recommending we examine to get a better idea of your function. This often includes:

  • A “Big picture” movement exam: I will watch you walk, stand, sit, and move in many different directions. I will look at how your spine moves (from your neck down), your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. I also look at your balance and preferred postures, and I’ll even watch how your breathe (yes, breathing really does matter!). While we do this, you’ll also let me know if any movements are challenging for you or lead to any pain, and this helps me understand how your body as a whole is moving.
  • Specific tests/movements: After the global movement screen, we may go through some specific tests. This can include tests to see how you transfer forces or control pressure through your pelvis by lifting a leg or moving in a certain way, tests to see  how the nerves in your spine glide and move, or tests to see what structures are contributors to pain you may be experiencing.
  • Myofascial palpation: Next, we’ll see what tissues are tender or not moving well around your abdomen, pelvis, or elsewhere if we need to. This includes gently touching the muscles around the belly, hips,  and legs to see if anything feels uncomfortable, and may include lifting and moving the skin and tissues under the skin to see where there may be restrictions in tissue movement.
  • Pelvic floor examination: After that, we will look more closely at the muscles of your pelvic floor. Because the muscles of the pelvic floor live inside the pelvis, the best way to examine them is by doing an internal vaginal or rectal examination. For this exam, you would undress from the waist down and lie down on a mat table, covered with a sheet. We don’t tend to use stirrups for our exams (which most people are grateful for!). We start by looking at the outside tissues. We’ll ask you to contract and relax your pelvic floor muscles, and gently bear down to see how your muscles move (Don’t worry if you’re not sure what to do, we can help teach you!). We may ask you to cough to see how the muscles move reflexively. Then, we often will lightly touch on the outside of the muscles to see if anything feels uncomfortable or sensitive to you. We may check how certain tissues move, if that applies to the problems you are experiencing. After that, we can examine the muscles in more detail by inserting one gloved and lubricated finger into the vaginal or rectal canal. We can then feel the muscles to see if they are tender or uncomfortable, assess the muscle strength and endurance, and assess muscle coordination.  *NOTE: While an internal exam is a very valuable examination technique, some people do not feel quite ready for this, or would prefer not to have an internal exam. If that’s the case, be sure to let me (or your pelvic PT) know, and we can offer some other options.  Also, remember that our exam should not be a painful experience for you. Your pelvic PT should tailor the examination to your needs, so that you leave feeling confident and comfortable, not flared-up and in pain.

Our Plan 

After we finish the exam, we should have a clear picture of what areas we can address to work together to help you achieve your goals (whether your goals are to have less pain, stop leaking, start pooping, or something different all together!). So, our next step is to talk about our plan– what you can get started on today, and what our steps will be to help you reach the goal you want to reach.  We also will talk about how often I am recommending you to come see me, and how long I think we might work together. Sometimes I’m really good at estimating this, but sometimes I’m wrong. We can adjust along the way if we need to.

I hope this helps you to feel more comfortable and more confident when coming in for pelvic PT! If you need help finding a skilled pelvic PT in your area, please check out this previous post. 

Please let me know if you have questions at all I can help answer! Have a wonderful week!

~Jessica

 

 

Small Group Mentoring–> Apply Today for the Winter Session!

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

Pre-Requisites:

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 Investment:

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!

Register Today!

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 jessicarealept@gmail.com.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!

All the best,

Jessica

Small Group Mentoring FAQ

Small Group Mentoring Application

 

 

Your Pelvic Floor as a Threat-o-meter

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! ;-))

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Sara, Darla and I after our first day of teaching. This was before we were rained on and had to run to our hotel!

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.
  • Remember that self-care is actually self-less: Taking care of our own needs allows us to better care for the needs of those around us. Remember the last time you flew in a plane– secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you! Self-care can mean making time in your day for regular exercise, taking steps to ensure you get the right nutrition you need to feel healthy, taking a break for yourself when you need it, being conscious about following the recommendations given to you by your pelvic PT 😉 or spending time doing a guided meditation or relaxation exercise. 
  • 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!

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Meet your newest pelvic health professionals from PF1 Atlanta 2018!

 

 

Movement, Pain Science & Wisdom: Clinical Expert Interview with Shelly Prosko, PT, PYT,CPI, C-IAYT

This afternoon, while my rambunctious little toddler was attempting (and ultimately failing!) a nap, I had the fantastic opportunity to chat with Shelly Prosko, a physiotherapist and yoga therapist in Alberta, Canada who specializes in working with individuals experiencing chronic pain (including pelvic pain!). Shelly is an all-around incredible human, knowledgeable clinician, and dynamic educator. I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed it!

Shelly and I chatted about some of the incredible content she has online, so I wanted to make sure I shared all of that information with you! If you would like to see the full playlist of her Words of Wisdom (W.O.W.) Chats, click here.
The individual links to the W.O.W. Chats we discussed are located below:
Lorimer Moseley: Pain Science Education vs Understanding Pain (I absolutely loved this one!!) 
Dr. Gabor Mate: Compassionate Inquiry for health providers
Carolyn Vandyken: Cultivating Courage for personal growth
Diane Lee: Connecting with Essence: your injury/pain does not define who you truly are
Mike Stewart: Your Pain is Real. We Believe You.
Shelly’s blog on Self-Care and what it really means to her:
Shelly also shared these resources for all of you:
Online course: PhysioYoga and the Pelvic Floor for healthcare providers, movement specialists, fitness professionals, yoga professionals:
Creating Pelvic Floor Health PhysioYoga video practices on Vimeo:
(Shelly has kindly given all of us this 10% off code: ClientDiscount10 for the “Buy All” option)
Shelly’s Pelvic Floor Resources: 

Are you a physical therapist interested in small group mentoring? Help me out by taking a short survey!

It’s almost here! I have been working on developing a small group mentoring program over the past few months, and it is almost ready to be rolled out!

As an instructor for Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, I have been fortunate to work with hundreds of excellent clinicians who are at various stages of their journeys into the exciting world of pelvic health. While some clinicians enter into the field with a vast network of seasoned pelvic floor experts to support them, others have the additional challenge of being an “island”–basically, being the sole practitioner in their practice, city, and for some, within a 100+ mi radius.

My goal with small group mentoring is to be a facilitator for those journeying into this incredible specialty–to help not only with building the skill, knowledge and clinical reasoning necessary to create outstanding clinicians, but also to help connect clinicians together so no one has to go at it alone.

If this resonates with you, and you’re interested in learning with me, I would love to hear from you! I created this survey to better assess the needs of those interested in small group mentoring. Please take a few minutes to complete this survey, and look out for future announcements when the program is ready for rolling out!

All the best,

Jessica

CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE SURVEY ON SMALL GROUP MENTORING 

FAQ: Specializing in Pelvic Health as a New Grad

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By Kit from Pittsburgh, USA (Grads Absorb the News) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I just received this question via e-mail from a participant at my most recent Level 1 Pelvic Floor course in Little Rock, Arkansas. (See upcoming course schedule!) As knowledge and exposure about pelvic floor disorders and pelvic PT grows, we see more and more doctoral students attending level 1 courses. And honestly, it makes me so excited about our future! These students are passionate, hungry for knowledge, and can’t wait to enter into the field and help people get better! I have mentored many students and new grads over the past several years, and this particular question frequently arises. I hope this post can be helpful for many new grads and DPT students in the future!

When students ask the questions listed above, they often are hit with well-intended, but often somewhat discouraging advice:

“You should really do orthopedics for a few years first, and then go into pelvic health.” 

“I really don’t think new grads should go straight into the pelvic health specialty” 

“It’s really important that you use all of your other skills first so you don’t lose them.” 

While this advice often means very well–aiming to create well-rounded practitioners, I find that this can feel very disheartening to that passionate-about-pelvic-health new grad. So, in that light, my advice is often a little bit different. I find we are all biased by our own experience, and in reality, many excellent clinicians spent multiple years in different specialties like orthopedics, neuro, acute care etc. prior to specializing in Pelvic PT, so I think there is a tendency to see this as the “best path” to becoming the most skilled clinician. Of course, I am biased the opposite way– I jumped into pelvic PT immediately upon completing my doctorate, and never looked back. Of course, this has meant that I had to do some work to build upon other skill sets that were needed over the years, but this path worked well for me.

So, why am I telling you all of this, excited-soon-to-be-new-grad? Because, honestly, you can do whatever you are passionate about doing! If you want to take some time to practice in another specialty, do it! If you are just too excited and want to jump right in to pelvic health, welcome aboard! Your experience alone is not going to make you an incredible clinician. Rather, it will be your passion, your hunger for learning, and your dedication to your patients that will fuel your path.  So, on that note, here are a few of my top tips for new grads entering into pelvic health!

  1. Choose an employer who will support your learning journey. In many ways, it has become very popular for clinics to build pelvic health programs. This is wonderful for patients (if they are committed to building good programs!) and a great opportunity for those entering the field. So, when you interview with an employer who is excited about your pelvic floor interest, ask questions to find out how much support they will give you along the way. Will they pay $$$ for your continuing education courses? Will the provide you time to work with a mentor? Will they support you by providing adequate time in your schedule for your patients (meaning, 45-60 dedicated minutes, not overlapping patients)?
  2. Negotiate for what you want. This is very very important. When I was first hired as a new grad, I negotiated with my employer for them to pay for me to attend 4 continuing education courses within my first year of employment. This allowed me to complete a full pelvic health curriculum within the year. Now, I realize that may seem a bit ambitious to some, but I considered this my personal “Residency” program and I felt like it gave me the jump start I wanted! So, this can mean negotiating for courses, mentoring time (get it in writing!), or even participation in an online mentoring program (like the one I plan to set up soon!).
  3. Find a good mentor. Of course, my perfect scenario for you involves finding a good job with a good mentor attached to it, but I realize that is not always easy to find. Reach out to local pelvic PTs in your area and connect with someone who is willing and able to be a resource to you! Of course, this can involve meeting periodically for coffee, or could be a more formal mentoring program. If the latter is the case, see point #2.
  4. Don’t be afraid to jump ship. If you start working somewhere and you don’t find that you are supported in the way you need to be, or you just don’t like the place you are working, it is totally ok for you to find a new job. Seriously. Life is too short to be unhappy where we spend our time.
  5. Be hungry for learning. I would encourage you to make a plan for attending coursework to help build your knowledge within the specialty. There are many excellent course series out there– Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, the Section on Women’s Health, Evidence in Motion, among many others. Of course, I teach with H&W, so would love to have you at one of my classes! 🙂 Also, there are so many wonderful opportunities for learning today, outside of traditional continuing education. Read blogs (like this one!). Research conditions and diagnoses that you are not familiar with. Join social media pelvic health groups like Women’s Health Physiotherapy and Global Pelvic Physio (both facebook groups!).  Attend conferences like the Combined Sections Meeting through the APTA, the International Pelvic Pain Society’s Annual Meeting or the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health’s Annual Meeting. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it!

I hope that is helpful! We are so fortunate to have so many excited and passionate clinicians joining our field! What other tips do you have for those joining this wonderful specialty? What other question do you have my dear PT students?

~ Jessica

 

Guest Post: There’s a pelvis… in your brain?!

As an educator, one of my biggest rewards is working with students and clinicians as they learn and grow in the field of pelvic floor physical therapy. This past winter, I was fortunate to work with Amanda Bastien, SPT, a current 3rd year doctoral student at Emory University. Amanda is passionate about helping people, dedicated to learning, and truly just an awesome person to be around, and I am so grateful to have played a small role in her educational journey! Today, I am thrilled to introduce her to all of you! Amanda shares my fascination with the brain and particularly the role it can play when a person is experiencing persistent pain. I hope you all enjoy this incredible post from Amanda! 

Have you ever been told your pain is “all in your head?” Unfortunately, this is often the experience of many people experiencing persistent pelvic pain. Interestingly enough, the brain itself is actually very involved in producing pain, particularly when a person has experienced pain for a long period of time. In this post, I’ll explain to you how someone can come to have pain that is ingrained in their brain, literally, and more importantly, what we can do to help them get better.

Pelvis image

Our brains are incredible! They are constantly changing and adapting; every second your brain fine tunes connections between brain cells, called neurons, reflecting your everyday experiences. This works like a bunch of wires that can connect to one another in different pathways and can be re-routed. Another way to say this is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This process of learning and adapting with experiences is known as neuroplasticity or neural plasticity. It is a well-documented occurrence in humans and animals. If you’re interested in learning more, this is a great article that summarizes the principles underlying neuroplasticity.1

In the case of pain…. well, here’s where it gets a little complicated.

The brain has distinct physical areas that have been found to relate to different functions and parts of the body.

brain areas

Those two spots in the middle that read “primary motor cortex” and “primary sensory cortex” relate to the control of body movements, and the interpretation of stimulus as sensations like hot, cold, sharp, or dull. By interpretation, I mean the brain uses this area to make sense of the signals it’s receiving from the rest of the body and decides what this feels like. These areas can be broken down by body structure, too.

In this next image, you’re looking at the brain like you’ve cut it down the middle, looking from the back of someone’s head to the front. This image illustrates the physical areas of the brain that correlate to specific limbs and body parts. This representation is known as a homunculus.

homonculus

See how the hand and facial features look massive? That’s because we do a LOT with our hands, have delicate control of our facial expressions, and feel many textures with both. Thus, these areas need a lot of physical space in our brains. In this image, the pelvis takes up less space than other areas, but for people who pay a lot of attention to their pelvis, this area may be mapped differently, or not as well-defined. We know that the brain changes due to experiences, and ordinarily, it has a distinct physical map of structures. But what happens when that brain map is drawn differently with experiences like pain?

Studies suggest that over time, the brain undergoes changes related to long-lasting pain. If someone is often having to pay attention to an area that is painful, they may experience changes in how their brain maps that experience on a day-to-day basis. This varies from person to person, and we’re still learning how this happens. Here’s an example: in a recent study, people experiencing long-standing pelvic pain were found to have more connections in their brains than in those of a pain-free control group, among other findings. The greater the area of pain, the more brain changes were found.2 My point here is to provide you with an example of how the brain can undergo changes with pain that can help explain how strange and scary it can feel for some. Read on to find out how we can work to reverse this!

The process that makes pain occur is complex. It often starts with some injury, surgery, or other experience causing tissue stress. First, cells respond by alerting nerves in the tissues. Then, that signal moves to the spinal cord and the brain, also called the central nervous system. The brain weighs the threat of the stress; neurons communicate with each other throughout the brain, in order to compare the stressor to prior experiences, environments, and emotions. The brain, the commander-in-chief, decides if it is dangerous, and responds with a protective signal in the form of pain.

Pain is a great alarm to make you change what you’re doing and move away from a perceived danger. Over time, however, the brain can over-interpret tissue stress signals as dangerous. Imagine an amplifier getting turned up on each danger signal, although the threat is still the same. This is how tissue stress can eventually lead to overly sensitive pain, even after the tissues themselves are healed.3

Additionally, your brain attempts to protect the area by smudging its drawing of the sensory and motor maps in a process called cortical remapping. Meaning, neurons have fired so much in an area that they rewire and connections spread out. This may be apparent if pain becomes more diffuse, spreads, and is harder to pinpoint or describe. For example, pain starts at the perineum or the tailbone, but over time is felt in a larger area, like the hips, back, or abdomen. To better understand this, I highly recommend watching this video by David Butler from the NOI group.

He’s great, huh? I could listen to him talk all day!

Pain alarms us to protect us, sometimes even when there’s nothing there! After having a limb amputated, people may feel as though the limb is still present, and in pain. This is called phantom limb pain. The limb has changed, but the connections within the brain have not. However, over time the connections in the brain will re-route. I share this example to illustrate how the brain alone can create pain in an area. Pain does not equal tissue injury; the two can occur independently of one another.4 Pain signals can also be created or amplified by thoughts, emotions, or beliefs regarding an injury. Has your pain ever gotten worse when you were stressed?

There is also some older case evidence that describes how chronic pain and bladder dysfunction evolved for people after surgery, in a way that suggests this type of brain involvement.5  Another case study describes a patient with phantom sensations of menstrual cramps following a total hysterectomy! 6

So, can we change the connections that have already re-mapped?

Yes!! The brain is ALWAYS changing, remember? There are clinicians who can help. Physicians have medications that target the central nervous system to influence how it functions. Psychologists and counselors can help people better understand their mental and emotional experiences as they relate to pain, and to work through these to promote health. Physical therapy provides graded exposure to stimuli such as movement or touch, in a therapeutic way that promotes brain changes and improved tolerance to those stimuli that are painful. This can result in a clearer, well-defined brain map and danger signals that are appropriate for the actual level of threat. Physical therapists also help people improve their strength and range of motion, so they can move more, hurt less, and stay strong when life throws heavy things at us!  It is SO important to return to moving normally and getting back to living! Poor movement strategies can prolong pain and dysfunction, and this can turn a short-term stressor into long-lasting, sensitized pain. (See Jessica’s blog here: LINK)

Of course, with any kind of treatment, it also depends on the unique individual. Everyone has personal experiences associated with pain that can make treatment different for them. We are still learning about how neural plasticity occurs, but the brain DOES change. This is how we are all able to adapt to new environments and circumstances around us! Pain is our protective mechanism, but sometimes it can get out of hand. While tissue injury can elicit pain, the nervous system can become overly sensitized to stimulus and cause pain with no real danger. This perception can spread beyond the original problem areas, and this can occur from connections remapping in the brain and the spinal cord. For pelvic pain, treatment is often multidisciplinary, but should include a pelvic health physical therapist who can facilitate tissue healing, optimal movement, and who can utilize the principles of neural plasticity to promote brain changes and return to function.

Amanda_Bastien2Amanda Bastien is a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, currently completing her Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree, graduating in May 2018. Amanda has a strong interest in pelvic health, orthopedics, neuroscience and providing quality information and care to her patients. 

References:

  1. Kleim, J.A., Jones, T.A. (2008). Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: Implications for rehabilitation after brain damage. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51, S225-S239. Retrieved from: https://www.jsmf.org/meetings/2008/may/Kleim%20&%20Jones%202008.pdf
  2. Kutch, J. J., Ichesco, E., Hampson, J. P., et al. (2017). Brain signature and functional impact of centralized pain: a multidisciplinary approach to the study of chronic pelvic pain (MAPP) network study. PAIN, 158, 1979-1991.
  3. Origoni, M., Maggiore, U. L. R., Salvatore, S., Candiani, M. (2014). Neurobiological mechanisms of pelvic pain. BioMed Research International, 2014, 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/903848
  4. Flor, H., Elbert, T., Knecht, S. et al. (1995). Phantom -limb pain as a perceptual correlate of cortical reorganization following an arm amputation. Nature, 375, 482-484.
  5. Zermann, D., Ishigooka, M., Doggweiler, R., Schmidt, R. (1998) Postoperative chronic pain and bladder dysfunction: Windup and neuronal plasticity – do we need a more neuroulogical approach in pelvic surgery? Urological Neurology and Urodynamics, 160, 102-105.
  6. Dorpat, T.L. (1971) Phantom sensations of internal organs. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 12(1), 27-35.

 

 

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!