I was interviewed for an article that was featured this month in Men’s Health! I wanted to share with all of you here! Excited to bring information on male chronic pelvic pain and pelvic floor physical therapy to such a big platform!
In the article, we discussed the scope of the problem, treatment recommendations, and even some details on what good pelvic PT should look like! I hope you all enjoy!
“Does that feel tender or uncomfortable to you at all?”
“Well yeah, but it’s because you’re pushing on it. I mean, I think anyone would hurt if you pressed there.”
This conversation is a common one that takes place in my treatment room. As a physical therapist specializing in pelvic health, I am frequently the first person to actually examine in detail the muscles of the pelvic floor by a vaginal or rectal digital assessment. Tenderness in the muscles on examination is very common in those experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction; however, this is often surprising to many people. The assumption that “everyone” would have tenderness in their pelvic floor muscles is extremely common, especially if the person doesn’t have a primary complaint of vaginal or rectal pain to “explain” the pain they feel.
Should healthy pelvic floor muscles be tender? Does everyone have tender pelvic floor muscles?
It’s an important question with far-reaching implications. If everyone has tenderness in their pelvic floor muscles, then would it really matter if I found it on an examination? Would it be a waste of time to focus our energy in the clinic on trying to reduce that tenderness? Thankfully, research thus far has helped to shed some light on this issue. In summary, healthy muscles should not hurt. Thus, tenderness does help us see that some type of dysfunction is present. Let’s look at the research.
Montenegro and colleagues (2010) examined 48 healthy women as well as 108 women with chronic pelvic pain. They found that 58% of the women with chronic pelvic pain had pelvic muscle tenderness compared to just 4% of healthy subjects. They also, of note, found higher rates of pain during sexual intercourse and constipation in those who had pelvic muscle tenderness.
Adams and colleagues (2013) found the prevalence of pelvic floor muscle tenderness in 5618 women referred to a university-based practice to be around 24%. They also found that women with tenderness had higher levels of bothersome symptoms related to prolapse, bowel and bladder dysfunction (by close to 50%!)
Hellman and colleagues (2015) examined 23 women with chronic pelvic pain, 23 women with painful bladder syndrome and 42 pain-free control subjects. They found that the two groups experiencing pain had increased pain sensitivity with lower pain-pressure thresholds compared to the pain-free subjects. They also had a longer duration of pain after the initial sensation (3.5 minutes vs. 0-1 minute in controls)
What about in pregnancy? Well, Fitzgerald and Mallinson (2012) examined 51 pregnant women– 26 with pelvic girdle pain and 25 without–and guess what they found? Significantly more women in the pain group had tenderness at the pelvic floor muscles and obturator internus compared to the group without pain.
What about in women who have never been pregnant? Well, Kavvadias and colleagues (2013) examined 17 healthy volunteers who had never been pregnant and found overall very low pain scores with palpation of the pelvic floor muscles. They concluded that pain in asymptomatic women should be considered an uncommon finding.
So, in summary. Healthy muscles should not hurt. If you are having problems like urinary, bowel or sexual dysfunction and you have tender pelvic floor muscles, this may be something worth addressing! See a pelvic PT– we are happy to help!
Technology in our current time is incredible. With our smartphones so quickly at our finger tips, we have apps for pretty much everything. Need to find a good restaurant near by? There’s an app for that. Want to quickly edit your photos into beautiful photo masterpieces? Just download the app. Last year over Christmas, I even found an app that turned anyone’s face into Santa Claus. (The results were amazing if you’re wondering).
And pelvic health is no different. There are so many apps available for people with pelvic problems or for general men’s and women’s health needs. I absolutely love apps for my patients that help them with the problems they’re experiencing or enhance their home programs. Here are some of the great ones out there! (Note: Special thanks to my colleagues on the Women’s Health Physiotherapy Facebook Group who added their suggestions to this list. I plan to keep this updated regularly so it can be a great resource for colleagues and our wonderful patients!) Enjoy!
iDry: Free version includes a tracker for pad usage and bladder leakage. Premium version includes options for interventions (including pelvic floor exercises!), a more detailed chart tracker, reminders, and options to send to your health care providers!
UroBladderDiary: This app costs $1.99 but allows tracking of urinary frequency and volumes, leakage, and fluid intake. Also allows tracking of urgency level. Allows conversion to a PDF to e-mail to health care provider.
Bathroom Map: For those struggling with strong urinary or bowel urgency and/or incontinence, this app may become your best friend! It uses your location to quickly identify all of the restrooms nearby. It also grades each bathroom as green, yellow or red to indicate the availability of the restroom, comfort and cleanliness of the facility.
Poo Keeper: This app is a quick tracker for someone struggling with bowel problems. Allows you to snap a quick photo of your stool and track your stool consistency.
BM Classic: For those with bowel problems, this app not only allows you to track your bowel frequency and stool consistency (using the awesome Bristol Stool Scale), but also allows you to track stress level, water intake, and dietary habits. Could be a great resource for someone struggling with bowel problems.
Pelvic Floor Exercises:
Squeezy: This app was designed by pelvic physiotherapists in the UK and is endorsed by the NHS. It allows for a personalized exercise program, has reminders, visuals and keeps a record.
Kegel Trainer: This app includes information on how to use pelvic floor muscles, and has various levels of exercise based on different contraction/relaxation intervals. Free version only includes first level, paid goes up to 15 levels. Includes reminders and an exercise tracker.
Pelvic Floor First: This is an awesome organization out of Australia, and I have used their website and handouts frequently for my clients for the past several years. Their app definitely does not disappoint! It offers a nice progressive exercise routine for someone struggling with pelvic floor weakness (like we commonly see with urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and postpartum difficulties). The programs go from Starting Out (30 min), Moving On (40 min) to Stepping Up (50 min). Just be sure to chat with your pelvic PT before you jump in the program!
If you prefer a device for strengthening (and your pelvic PT thinks that would be helpful to you!), the following are apps that sync to insertable devices: Pericoach, Elvie, KGoal
BWOM: This app is great because it starts with a short quiz to help identify where someone may have a pelvic floor problem. It then has exercise programs (available for a small $$) based on that problem, including relaxation exercises! Designed by pelvic physios.
GoldMuscle: This app is focused on improving sexual performance rather than on those who may have pelvic health problems, so definitely has a different look to it. It includes various programs to focus on both endurance and quick contractions of pelvic floor, allows you to track progress, and get reminders for your exercises.
Pelvic Pain/Relaxation Apps:
RelaxLite with Andrew Johnson: This is one of my personal faves. Basically, it’s a 10-15 min guided progressive relaxation. He has a paid version too with lots of additional upgrades, but the free meditation is great!
Headspace: Free version includes a free 10 minute meditation to teach basics of meditation. Upgrade provides access to tons of different meditation options. Great way to start learning meditation.
Calm: Another great meditation app. Free version includes the “7 days of Calm” introductory program to learn the basics of mindful meditation, and also incluees access to soothing sounds to help relieve stress. Upgrade allows access to all of the different meditation programs (for sleep, calm, etc)
Insight Timer: Meditation community app, includes a timer to track meditation with different sound options, and includes over 1300 guided meditations. Also includes discussion groups and meet-up groups.
Binaural- Pure Binaural Beats: This app allows you to listen (use headphones) to various sounds to promote brain wave activity correlated with relaxation, meditation, problem solving and activity. And all of it’s free!
iPeriod: Paid versions only. Use to track periods, ovulation and fertility; Graphs of data available and includes availability to export data to take to physician visits. Lots of personalization options too!
Clue: Period tracker that predicts dates for your next period, and also allows you to track symptoms as they relate to your cycle (including pain, which is awesome!)
My Days: This app tracks and predicts periods, ovulation and fertility. Also allows options to track basal metabolic temperature, cervical mucus and cervix for those trying to become pregnant.
Pregnancy Pelvic Floor Plan: This app by the Continence Foundation of Australia has both a tracker to see weekly milestones during pregnancy, but also has great information on pelvic floor health. Includes option to receive regular reminders to perform pelvic floor exercises.
Gentle Birth: This app promotes a positive pregnancy and birth experience. Includes mindfulness, breathing techniques, affirmations and hypnosis, combined with evidence based research. Customized programs based on the woman’s needs. Free for a sample program, then requires paid subscription.
Mind the Bump: Meditation app geared toward pregnancy/postnatal populations. Includes different meditations for different periods of time (first trimester-postpartum)
Pregnancy Exercise- Weekly Workout: This app by Oh Baby! Fitness (based out of Atlanta, and generally very evidence-based!) includes a new exercise for every week of pregnancy based on pilates, yoga and strength training. Through 10 weeks is free, then $5 to unlock the rest of the weeks.
Rost Moves: This app provides recommendations for body mechanics/movement options when performing different regular home activities. Especially a great app for new moms or pregnant women with pelvic girdle/low back pain.
Hope you found this helpful! Did I miss any of your favorite apps?? Let me know in the comments below! I plan to update this page regularly for new apps we discover! Have a great week! ~ Jessica
“Ok, let’s try that again, but I want you to do it a little bit more slowly.”
“Let’s see if you can do that with a little bit less tension.”
“Do you feel how your neck is working while you’re trying to move your hips? Let’s see if you can do that with only moving your hips.”
These statements (or variations of them) are ones I tend to make most days of the week. One of the most common things I notice in the men and women I treat with persistent pelvic pain is difficulty in modulating tension. I generally can see this from the moment they walk in my office:
Gripping postures, sitting with the shoulders elevated, gripping the chest or the glutes, tightening the back.
Minimal variability of movement (basically meaning it is difficult for them to move in different patterns, fully bend and rotate their spines and hips, etc)
Altered breathing patterns with poor diaphragmatic excursion
This type of high-tension behavior often occurs in conjunction with a dominant sympathetic nervous system (which we have discussed several times in the past– read here and here). In these cases, the body will feel constantly threatened (makes sense if you’ve had pain for a long time and don’t seem to get better) which can lead to the “fight-or-flight” response being pushed into overdrive. When this occurs, we typically see amped up muscle tension, changes in breathing patterns, and many additional physiological compensations (which you can read more about here). And, I believe this pattern tends to also lead to an overly gripped, hypervigilant pelvic floor muscle group. Then, what I typically see is that instead of the pelvic floor activating with variability, based on the required task at hand (meaning, small amounts of activation for small tasks, and large amounts of activation for bigger tasks), we will instead see loss of force modulation with very high amounts of activation for basic tasks and an inability to let go of that force for simple tasks or tasks that require relaxation (bowel movements, sex, etc).
So, with all of that being said, one of the best things a person with persistent pelvic pain can do is to learn to slow down and control his or her tension patterns. My patients typically begin working on this within the first week or so of treatment, and we continue working on this throughout the initial phase of their care. Basically, our goal is to create awareness of movement–to move mindfully and truly feel what the body is doing to accomplish a task. Typically, as a person becomes more mindful of the movements he or she is performing, we will see an alteration in the force required to perform the movement and this, along with other treatments we are working on, encourages a shift of the body from an overly sympathetic state to a more neutral one.
So, how can you get started with slow and mindful movements if you are struggling with persistent pelvic pain?
First, if you are already working with a pelvic PT, talk with them about your tension strategies. Ask her if she has noticed you moving with higher tension and discuss with her integrating slow and mindful movements within your treatment program. If you are not in pelvic PT, or wish to try something on your own, here is one of my favorite exercises to start with:
The Pelvic Clock
This exercise is adapted from a Feldenkrais movement (I believe). I love it because I can integrate diaphragmatic breathing with pelvic floor relaxation, and it encourages awareness of the movement of the pelvis. I tend to find that many people with pelvic pain have difficulty truly knowing where their pelvis is in space and how it moves, and this exercise can help to improve that. So, let’s get started.
Begin in a relaxed comfortable position, lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet resting on the mat (bed, floor, whatevs). Visualize a clock sitting on your pelvis as is shown in the picture above.
Start with slow, diaphragmatic breathing. Remember, breathing with your diaphragm will allow the ribcage to expand in all directions, the belly and chest will lift, but the muscles of your neck and shoulders should stay relaxed. If you have not read much about diaphragmatic breathing, read this post and its links before moving forward)
Next, we will start to integrate your pelvic floor into your breathing. So, on the next inhale, visualize the breath allowing your pelvic floor to lengthen and relax. This should not be something forceful (ie. don’t push out your pelvic floor), but rather, just focus on letting go of tension as you inhale, allowing the pelvic floor to gently lengthen and the abdominal wall to let go of any tension.
Next, we will add in gentle movement of the pelvis with your breath. As you inhale, the pelvic floor will relax and pelvis will gently tilt toward 6 o’clock (allowing the tailbone to fall toward the mat). As you exhale, gently tilt the pelvis back to 12 o’clock allowing the low back to slowly come into contact with the mat. Repeat this slow pattern, focusing on trying to use small amounts of muscle tension to accomplish the task. Remember that this movement and really any other movement should not cause you to guard, tense your muscles or drive up any of the pain you are experiencing.
Once you feel confident and comfortable with the previous step, you can begin to add the rotational component. This time, as you inhale, slowly rotate the pelvis around the clock shifting from 12 –> 3 –> 6, ending in the position where your tailbone is gently dropped toward the mat. As you exhale, allow the pelvis to rotate from 6–> 9–> 12, ending in the position where your low back is gently resting on the mat. Repeat this pattern for several breaths, then try to reverse the motion (inhaling as you move from 12 –>9–>6 and exhaling from 6–>3–>12)
Challenge yourself further by trying to allow the pelvis to move through all the numbers of the clock (12–>1–>2–>3… etc).
Remember, there is no rush to performing this exercise! The purpose is awareness– to really feel your pelvis move and shut off any additional tension in performing the task. Did you feel your neck tighten as you were moving? Try again with a focus on keeping it relaxed. Are your legs tightening and moving frequently as you move through the clock? Try to see if you can calm that tension and isolate the movement to your pelvis. Do you feel your pelvic floor gripping as you move? Try to see if you can keep the emphasis on relaxing the pelvic floor during your breathing.
Are you thirsty for more?
A few of my other favorites for slow, mindful movements are found in both Yoga and the Feldenkrais method. I love Dustienne Miller’s (she’s a pelvic PT too!) home video, yoga for pelvic pain and have had many patients benefit from using it. I also enjoy the Awareness Through Movement lessons with the Feldenkrais Method. Several free online lessons are available here via the OpenATM program.
I hope you have found this helpful! What other movements have you found helpful for pelvic pain? Pelvic PTs and patients, feel free to chime in, so we can all keep learning together!
If you didn’t know, December 1st was a day that all PTs came together to share with the public all of the benefits of seeking PT! My colleague, Stephanie Prendergast, founder of the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in California, wrote an amazing blog post on why someone should get pelvic PT first. I thought it was great (as you know…I post lots of Stephanie’s stuff), and Stephanie gave me permission to re-blog it here. So, I really hope you enjoy it. If you aren’t familiar with Stephanie’s blog, please check it out here. You won’t regret it.
On another note, I will be teaching a live webinar Thursday 12/10 on Pelvic Floor Dysfunction in the Adult Athlete. I really hope to see some blog followers there! Register for it here.
Now… enjoy this great post by Stephanie. ~ Jessica
Why get PT 1st? Here are the Facts. By Stephanie Prendergast
Vaginal pain. Burning with urination. Post-ejaculatory pain. Constipation. Genital pain following bowel movements. Pelvic pain that prevents sitting, exercising, wearing pants and having pleasurable intercourse.
When a person develops these symptoms, physical therapy is not the first avenue of treatment they turn to for help. In fact, physical therapists are not even considered at all. This week, we’ll discuss why this old way of thinking needs to CHANGE. Additionally, we’ll explain how the “Get PT 1st” campaign is leading the way in this movement.
We’ve heard it before. You didn’t know we existed, right? Throughout the years, patients continue to inform me the reason they never sought a physical therapist for treatment first, was because they were unaware pelvic physical therapists existed, and are actually qualified to help them.
Many individuals do not realize that physical therapists hold advanced degrees in musculoskeletal and neurologic health, and are treating a wide range of disorders beyond the commonly thought of sports or surgical rehabilitation.
On December 1st, physical therapists came together on social media to raise awareness about our profession and how we serve the community. The campaign is titled “GetPT1st”. The team at PHRC supports this campaign and this week we will tell you that you can and should get PT first if you are suffering from a pelvic floor disorder.
Did you know that a majority of people with pelvic pain have “tight” pelvic floor muscles that are associated with their symptoms?
Physical therapy is first-line treatment that can help women eliminate vulvar pain
Chronic vulvar pain affects approximately 8% of the female population under 40 years old in the USA, with prevalence increasing to 18% across the lifespan. (Ruby H. N. Nguyen, Rachael M. Turner, Jared Sieling, David A. Williams, James S. Hodges, Bernard L. Harlow, Feasibility of Collecting Vulvar Pain Variability and its Correlates Using Prospective Collection with Smartphones 2014)
Physical therapy is first-line treatment that can help men and women with Interstitial Cystitis
Over 1 million people are affected by IC in the United States alone [Hanno, 2002;Jones and Nyberg, 1997], in fact; an office survey indicated that 575 in every 100,000 women have IC [Rosenberg and Hazzard, 2005]. Another study on self-reported adult IC cases in an urban community estimated its prevalence to be approximately 4% [Ibrahim et al. 2007]. Children and adolescents can also have IC [Shear and Mayer, 2006]; patients with IC have had 10 times higher prevalence of bladder problems as children than the general population [Hanno, 2007].
Physical Therapy is first-line treatment that can help men suffering from Chronic Nonbacterial Prostatitis/Male Pelvic Pain
Chronic prostatitis (CP) or chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CPPS) affects 2%-14% of the male population, and chronic prostatitis is the most common urologic diagnosis in men aged <50 years.
The definition of CP/CPPS states urinary symptoms are present in the absence of a prostate infection. (Pontari et al. New developments in the diagnosis and treatment of CP/CPPS. Current Opinion, November 2013).
71% of women in a survey of 205 educated postpartum women were unaware of the impact of pregnancy on the pelvic floor muscles.
21% of nulliparous women in a 269 women study presented with Levator Ani avulsion following a vaginal delivery (Deft. relationship between postpartum levator ani muscle avulsion and signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction. BJOG 2014 Feb 121: 1164 -1172).
64.3% of women reported sexual dysfunction in the first year following childbirth. (Khajehi M. Prevalence and risk factors of sexual dysfunction in postpartum Australian women. J Sex Med 2015 June; 12(6):1415-26.
24% of postpartum women still experienced pain with intercourse at 18 months postpartum (McDonald et al. Dyspareunia and childbirth: a prospective cohort study. BJOG 2015)
85% of women stated that given verbal instruction alone did not help them to properly perform a Kegel. *Dunbar A. understanding vaginal childbirth: what do women understand about the consequences of vaginal childbirth.J Wo Health PT 2011 May/August 35 (2) 51 – 56)
Did you know that pelvic floor physical therapy is mandatory for postpartum women in many other countries such as France, Australia, and England? This is because pelvic floor physical therapy can help prepartum women prepare for birth and postpartum moms restore their musculoskeletal health, eliminate incontinence, prevent pelvic organ prolapse, and return to pain-free sex.
Did you know that weak or ‘low tone’ pelvic floor muscles are associated with urinary and fecal incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and pelvic organ prolapse?
Physical Therapy can help with Stress Urinary Incontinence
Did you know that weak or ‘low tone’ pelvic floor muscles are associated with urinary and fecal incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and pelvic organ prolapse? 80% of women by the age of 50 experience Stress Urinary Incontinence. Pelvic floor muscle training was associated with a cure of stress urinary incontinence. (Dumoulin C et al. Neurourol Urodyn. Nov 2014)
30 – 85 % of men develop stress urinary incontinence following a radical prostatectomy. Early pelvic floor muscle training hastened the recovery of continence and reduced the severity at 1, 3 and 6 months postoperatively. (Ribeiro LH et al. J Urol. Sept 2014; 184 (3):1034 -9).
Physical Therapy can help with Erectile Dysfunction
Several studies have looked at the prevalence of ED. At age 40, approximately 40% of men are affected. The rate increases to nearly 70% in men aged 70 years. The prevalence of complete ED increases from 5% to 15% as age increases from 40 to 70 years.1
Physical Therapy can help with Pelvic Organ Prolapse
In the 16,616 women with a uterus, the rate of uterine prolapse was 14.2%; the rate of cystocele was 34.3%; and the rate of rectocele was 18.6%. For the 10,727 women who had undergone a hysterectomy, the prevalence of cystocele was 32.9% and of rectocele was 18.3%. (Susan L. Hendrix, DO,Pelvic organ prolapse in the Women’s Health Initiative: Gravity and gravidity. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2002;186:1160-6.)
Pelvic floor physical therapy can help optimize musculoskeletal health, reducing the symptoms of prolapse, help prepare the body for surgery if necessary, and speed post-operative recovery.
Stephanie grew up in South Jersey, and currently sees patients at Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in their Los Angeles office. She received her bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology from Rutgers University, and her master’s in physical therapy at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. For balance, Steph turns to yoga, music, and her calm and loving King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Abbie. For adventure, she gets her fix from scuba diving and global travel.
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.
Confession: I treat men. Lots of them. Seriously, I think my schedule is often about 30% men. This shouldn’t have to be a confession. You shouldn’t be surprised, or shocked by this, but you possibly are. I mean, my female patients are often surprised when they see a male walking out prior to their appointments. I’ve seen that same surprised look on a friend’s (or family member’s, or random person at the bar who happened to ask me what I do for a living’s) face. For some reason, pelvic floor problems are typically seen as a “woman’s problem,” and this is so so unfortunate. It’s unfortunate, because it means that many men feel embarrassed or awkward seeking help for a problem seen to be “unmanly.” It’s unfortunate, because SO many of the men I treat end up seeing close to 5-6 physicians, plus 2-3 physical therapists/chiropractors/acupuncturists, etc. before they actually end up in a place that offers them hope. And it’s unfortunate, because it means that many many men end up suffering with pain for way longer than they should. And this just has to stop. < Rant ended>
So, today, we’re going to talk about Pelvic Pain in Men. First, you should know that pelvic pain in men is not that uncommon. In fact, this study estimates that close to 1 in 10 men experience chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome. Often times, pelvic pain is first diagnosed as prostatitis, and I think this happens because of where the pain is located. Prostatitis means inflammation in the prostate… but not all men with the diagnosis actually have inflammation present in the prostate. In all seriousness, I encourage men who are having pelvic pain and receive this diagnosis to ask for a culture. Make sure your prostate is really the one who should be blamed. In some cases, it is (like with bacterial infections). But, often times, these cultures come back negative. So ultimately if the pelvic pain doesn’t go away after a few months, men will often get the diagnosis of chronic nonbacterial prostatitis (which is now categorized as Type 3 chronic prostatitis) or chronic pelvic pain syndrome.
Now, you may be thinking, “Jessica, where are you going with all of this?” Well, these men are the ones I generally end up treating. They’ve had pelvic pain for a long time. Haven’t really responded that well to many medications. And still have pretty significant pain levels. <<Side bar: Today, we’re going to talk about the musculoskeletal aspects involved in pelvic pain in men; however, we never want to downplay the role that other systems and structures can play in pain. So, make sure you are working with a multidisciplinary team and are thoroughly evaluated medically.>>
The symptoms of myofascial pelvic pain in men can include the following:
Pain (which can be sharp, dull, achey, burning, pulling, etc) localized to the lower abdomen, hips, buttock, anus, perineal body, penis, scrotum and/or tailbone.
Changes in urination, including urinary urgency/frequency, pain with urination, difficulty starting a urine stream, intermittent or slow urine stream, dribbling after urination and/or urinary leakage.
Changes in bowel function including constipation, difficulty emptying bowel movements, pain during and/or after bowel movements.
Changes in sexual function including premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction and/or pain related to sexual function.
So, what can a physical therapist do to help a man with pelvic pain?
Well, a lot. First, you should know that pelvic pain is complicated (I would argue that all pain really is) and when someone has been in pain for a long time, their pain experience becomes multifactorial. We know now that when a person has had pain for a long time, his or her brain changes the way it processes the signals from the area, and many people develop what we call “central sensitization.” This study found that this happens commonly in men with chronic pelvic pain, which should come as no shock to those of you who read my blog regularly. How exactly is the brain involved in all this? I’m not going to repeat myself here…but I will tell you, to stop here if you don’t know it already, and read this, this and this.
Ok, back to what we can do to help these men experiencing pelvic pain. Let’s break it down:
Identification of the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular structures involved: A skilled pelvic PT will perform a comprehensive examination to observe movement patterns and identify structures that could be a component of the pelvic pain experience (including neural, muscular and connective tissue)For many men with pelvic pain, the pelvic floor muscles can be some of those components. These muscles are actually fairly similar anatomically to the pelvic floor muscles in women (although different, of course!). These muscles can be evaluated externally via palpation or internally via the anal canal. Typically, assessing both ways is the best option as it gives us a comprehensive picture of what is happening from a muscular standpoint.
Nervous System (Brain) Training: I could really just stop here…because this is our primary and most important goal in physical therapy. This should (and will eventually) be a series of posts in itself. Basically, we know that the brain protects a person against “threatening” areas, movements, etc. when a person is experiencing persistent pain. We want to slowly teach the brain that the areas it is protecting are no longer a threat. We want to widen the “safety net” of the brain to allow for more variability in movement, and we can do that through manual therapy, downtraining the nervous system(restoring breathing patterns, guided relaxations, stress management, etc), restorative exercise/movement, and lots of behavioral education.
Manual Therapy Techniques: Musculoskeletal structures are often significant components of chronic pelvic pain in men, like I mentioned above. This includes the pelvic floor muscles (both the external, superficial layer of muscles around the penis and perineum as well as the deeper layers of muscle) as well as the muscles around the pelvis (gluteal muscles, adductors, hip flexors, low back muscles, etc.). Many men will also have restrictions in connective tissue around the pelvis, as well as possibly decreased nerve mobility in some of the nerves around the pelvis. Manual therapy techniques performed both externally and internally help to restore tissue mobility, improve blood flow, and improve the movement of the spine and joints around the pelvis.
Improving Bowel, Bladder and Sexual Habits: As mentioned above, pelvic pain is often accompanied by bladder, bowel or sexual symptoms. Part of helping a client move toward better function means making sure that habits are supporting the best possible outcome. So, we look at everything from dietary habits, toilet positioning, sexual positioning/habits, as well as even sleeping habits to make sure we are addressing as many components of the “pain picture” that we can.
Restoring Movement Patterns: As we have learned previously, movement patterns are often changed/adapted when a person is experiencing pain. Although this can be a helpful adaptation short-term, these adaptations can often contribute to problems as time goes on. So, our goal is to observe these patterns of movement and identify asymmetries or dominant patterns in order to add some variety to movement and improve the fluidity of movement patterns. Basically, we want to restore the large variety of movement that you used to have before you were dealing with pelvic pain.
Much, much more… I know, this is a catch-all subheading. But honestly, there is SO much more that we can do to help someone with pelvic pain depending on the specific case and it would be impossible to get it all in within one blog!
So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that if you’re a man who is having pelvic pain, it’s time to do something about it! I really do recommend seeking out a pelvic PT who is skilled in treating persistent pelvic pain, and comfortable in treating men (Come see me if you live in the metro Atlanta area!). And, if you’re a pelvic PT and don’t feel comfortable treating men? Then, I want you to read what I’m about to write with the kindest, gentlest undertones… It’s time to get comfortable. I’m serious, and I’m talking to you blog reader who only accepts female clients. I understand that some women feel awkward about this…but men need us! They’re hurting, and they need help, so I really think it’s time to get comfortable. Go to a course, seek out mentoring, or whatever you need to get comfortable…but I think we all need to take responsibility to start providing these men with the care they need!
Wanna read more? Check out these great posts by my colleagues on male pelvic floor problems:
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.
As promised, this is part 2 of my series on pelvic floor problems in the adult athlete. Part 1 discussed pelvic floor pain- what it is, how it happens, and how it is treated. If you missed it, you can still check it out here. Today, we will cover stress urinary incontinence in athletes.
Guess what? Leaking is not normal. Ever. Never. Nope.
At some point over the years, women became convinced that after having children it suddenly becomes normal to leak urine when coughing or sneezing. Or, that if you work out really really hard, or jump rope really quick, or jump on a trampoline, it’s normal to pee a little bit. But guess what? It’s not. And I firmly believe that no woman (or man!) should have to “just deal with it.”
Bladder problems during exercise are very common– Here are some stats:
This summary article estimated that 47 % of women who regularly engage in exercise report some degree of urinary incontinence. (Other articles have shown big variety, with one review stating the prevalence varies from 10-55%)
This study found that in 105 female volleyball players, 65% had at least one symptom of stress urinary incontinence and/or urgency.
In elite athletes (including dancers), this study found a prevalence of urinary problems at 52%.
Summary: Urine loss during exercise is COMMON. And it’s about time we do something about it!
So, what is stress urinary incontinence (SUI)? Basically, SUI is involuntary leakage of urine associated with an increase in intra-abdominal pressure. For those who exercise regularly, this can occur with running, jumping (jumping rope, jumping jacks, box jumps, trampoline), dancing (zumba, too!), weight lifting, squatting, pilates/yoga, bootcamp classes, kicking, and many other forms of exercise.
**Note: Although SUI is one of the most common forms of urinary dysfunction we see in athletes, other problems can exist as well. This can include stronger urinary urgency, frequency (going too often), and/or difficulties emptying the bladder or starting the stream. Bowel dysfunction is also a problem with many athletes, and can include bowel leakage, constipation, or difficulty emptying the bowels.
Why does it happen? There are many causes of bladder leakage, so it is always important to be medically evaluated. We know that hormones can play a role, as well as anatomical factors (pelvic organ prolapse or urethral hypermobility). Other factors can include childbirth history, body mechanics, breathing patterns/dysfunction, obesity–and I’ll add here, previous orthopedic injury or low back/pelvic girdle pain.
From a musculoskeletal viewpoint, SUI has to do with a failure of the body to control intra-abdominal pressure. Basically, there are forces through the abdomen and pelvis during movements, and our body has to control and disperse those forces. The deepest layer of muscles that work together for pressure modulation are the pelvic floor muscles, the transverse abdominis, the multifidus, and the diaphragm. In terms of the pelvic floor muscles specifically, remember that we want strong, flexible, well-timed muscles. Tight irritated muscles can contribute to UI just as much as weak overly stretched out muscles. We have discussed this many many times on this blog, but if you’d like a review of that, read this piece on why kegels are not always appropriate for UI and check out the videos by my colleague, Julie Wiebe, posted there. It is also important that a person has properly firing muscles around the pelvis–especially the glutes! but also the other muscles around the pelvis that help to move you.
The way in which a person moves can also be a significant contributing factor to SUI. For example, if a person holds his or her breath during jump rope, the diaphragm is not able to move well and the entire pressure system will be impacted (leading to possible leaks!). I have also seen women develop SUI or pelvic organ prolapse after performing regular exercise using incorrect form/alignment or after performing exercises that were too difficult for them to do correctly. Often times, this leads to compensatory strategies that can make pressure modulation very difficult for the body.
What can you do about it? First things first–stop “just dealing with it!” I recommend a medical evaluation to start, but always encourage people to seek conservative treatments first prior to medications and/or surgery. The best person to evaluate you from a musculoskeletal perspective is a PT who is specialized in treating pelvic floor dysfunction (and if you live in metro Atlanta and have SUI, come and see me!). The physical therapist will do a comprehensive evaluation which will include:
A detailed history, including your obstetric history (if applicable), daily habits, diet/fluid intake, and your regular exercise routine
Evaluation of your movement patterns (specific exercises, weightlifting, etc.) which are causing you problems
Head to toe evaluation of your spine, ribcage, abdominal wall, hips, breathing patterns, alignment/posture, knees…all the way down to your feet to see how your movement at each spot could be influencing your pressure system. We also look at how your various muscles fire to help to identify which muscles may not be firing at the right times or which muscles may be tight and impacting your movements.
Evaluation of the pelvic floor muscles. As the pelvic floor muscles are located internally, the best way to assess them is with an internal vaginal or rectal assessment. That being said, if you are uncomfortable with that, there are options for external assessment that will help the PT gather some information (just know that this will likely be less thorough).
Treatment for SUI often includes:
Re-establishing the proper timing and coordination of the pelvic floor, diaphragm, multifidus and transverse abdominis to stabilize the lumbopelvic region and modulate pressure during movements. Remember, our goal is to optimize this team working together–it’s not just about the pelvic floor, and kegels are not always the answer.
Retraining the proper firing of the muscles around the pelvis during movements.
Correction of postural/alignment problems which could be contributing factors
Manual therapy and specific exercises to improve previous findings in spine, hips, knees, etc.
Education on proper alignment, breathing patterns, and movement sequences during preferred exercises.
Education on bladder health, dietary patterns, fluid intake, patterns for emptying bladder, toilet positioning, etc. to encourage healthy bladder function.
Treatment of co-existing bowel dysfunction, sexual dysfunction or orthopedic pain (as this is often all connected!).
**Some women also benefit from using assistive equipment like a tampon or a pessary to help stabilize the urethra or support the vaginal wall during exercise depending on her specific situation.
My colleagues write very well, and have written several excellent posts on pelvic floor problems in athletes. Here are a few of my favorites:
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!