Tag Archives: Neuroscience

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!

 

 

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.

 

 

The benefits of slowing down

“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.

Pelvic Clock

  • 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!

Happy Wednesday!

~ Jessica

Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You (Part 2): Pain

Ok, before we dive into this post, I wanted to say I am SO sorry for taking so long to get this “Part 2” out there. I was at the American Physical Therapy Association’s Combined Sections Meeting in Anaheim, CA for a week, got home and put a contract down on a new house (YAY!!), and things have just been crazy crazy! So, please accept my apology, and I hope you enjoy this post! Stay tuned for some CSM-y posts in the future!  Thanks for reading!! ~ Jessica 

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“Perhaps it’s time to recognize that the division between mind and body may be no more than a pedagogic device for instructing medical students– and not a useful construct for understanding human health, disease and behavior.”  V.S. Ramachadran, Phantoms in the Brain

Last post, we discussed how the brain can be tricked by both optical illusions and magic tricks. If you haven’t read it yet, you really need to…because it basically sets the stage for our post this week.

So, how does pain play into all of this? 

Well, pain is an output of the brain, much like vision. Meaning, your brain is receiving sensory information from your body (including your mechanosensation, vision, proprioception, hearing, vestibular/balance input, etc), integrating it with your prior knowledge, experiences, emotions and beliefs, and then creating an output. (ie. “This hurts, you better do something about it!” Or, “You just stubbed your toe you baby…you’ll be just fine!” Or, “Oh my gosh! Your back is never going to get better! It’s probably something super serious and dangerous!”).  Just like your brain can sometimes mess with you in relation to your visual input, the same thing can happen with pain. Let’s look at a few examples.

The Phantom Limb

This example ends up being one that is discussed frequently…in fact, much of the current research on pain was inspired by people experiencing phantom limb pain. If you haven’t heard of phantom limb pain before, basically, this is when a person will feel pain in a limb that has been amputated. Crazy, right? We know that clearly the limb itself if not a source of pain, but rather, the brain is still perceiving threat from the area. This can happen for several reasons. One of the main reasons this can occur is that, although the limb itself is gone, the brain will often still have a representation of that limb.

Homunculus

Now, this representation is changeable over time, however, smudging can occur leading to referred sensations from one area to another. This can trick the body into thinking there is a problem with the non-existent hand. Now, normally, you could look down, see your hand, feel it, and that would then confirm for your brain that the hand it actually fine…however, in cases of phantom limb pain, the limb is not there, so reducing the treat becomes much more tricky. The cool thing is, amazing scientists have developed ways to retrain this using things like mirror therapy (Check out this video from David Butler!) and other innovative treatment approaches. So, obviously, I am wayyyy simplifying this phantom limb phenomenon for this blog, and there are other known contributors to phantom limb pain as well, so I really do recommend you read more. Check out this article from Body in Mind which goes into much more detail.

When Perceived Threat and Harm Level Don’t Quite Match

Have you ever had a little splinter that just hurt so much? That you couldn’t get out of your head until is was gone? That’s a little bit of harm…but somehow the brain is perceiving a big problem. Or, have you ever heard a story about a person walking into the ER talking normally with a knife sticking out of their arm? That’s a lot of harm…but somehow the brain is able to perceive a small threat (which is super helpful in that moment so that the person can get to the ER!).

My favorite example of this is Lorimer Moseley’s story of a snake bite in the brush in Australia. Check it out. He’s hilarious and awesome.

Basically, he tells the story of being bitten by a poisonous snake while walking through thick brush in Australia. When the bite occurs, he doesn’t even realize it because his brain at that moment received the bite information and processed it, with the conclusion of “It’s just a stick. There are tons of sticks around here, nothing to worry about.” He doesn’t realize it’s a snake bite until he passes out a while later. Fast forward to a later time, walking through the brush again, feels the same poke and immediately falls down in excruciating pain…only to realize, it was just a stick. Fascinating right? In that second scenario, his brain had the memory of the first snake bite and the trauma from that, thus, the poke felt much more dangerous and threatening than the first time, and he felt a much greater amount of pain.

So, what does this mean for you? 

Basically, just like our brain can be fooled through visual illusions and magicians, we can also be fooled by pain. This is not meant to imply that pain is in your head…but rather, pain can play tricks on you. And what you feel is a problem in your tissues may not actually be a problem there…but rather could be simply the interpretation of your brain based on the information it is receiving in the moment. Pain, just like vision and hearing, is complex. And treating it thus requires a complex and integrative approach.

Wanna learn more? Check out these awesome articles/videos:

Have a wonderful Monday!

~Jessica

 

Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You (Part 1): Visual Illusions

Falling in love is an incredible feeling, isn’t it? One we don’t tend to forget very quickly. At least, that’s how it was for me and Neuroscience. I remember clearly when the falling in love started to take place. Junior year in college, reading a book called  by V.S. Ramachadran, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind,
for my Neuroanatomy and Physiology of Human Movement class. I remember being glued to that book from cover to cover, only stopping briefly to write down a quick quote or call my parents to tell them the amazing piece of information I just learned (Yes, I still call them to tell them fun things like that :))

The amazing thing, that I’m sure you are realizing too, is that our brains are simply incredible. We have the ability to take in millions of tiny pieces of information in microseconds, integrate it within everything we believe to be true about our world and the universe and then make decisions on what that information means. It’s incredible, really. But did you know that this ultimate perception can lead to misinformation? Did you know your brain can really really mess with you?

Optical Illusions

One of the most well-known tricks of the brain is an optical illusion. Do you see a bunny or a duck?

Illusions DuckBunny

Which square is darker, A or B? (They’re actually the same color!)

128px-Optical_illusion

By Wuhazet – Henryk Żychowski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So, how did your brain trick you? Your nervous system is constantly gathering information about the body and the environment through multiple different inputs: visual, mechanical, temperature, proprioceptive (the position of your joints), vestibular (your inner ear). This process is called sensation. Perception, then, is your brain’s interpretation of the information it receives. The brain receives and filters the information from various sensors and then interprets its meaning to create our experience. In these cases, your brain receives the signal (visual input) and then perceives meaning based on the information, and your experience. In the first picture, your brain likely can see either a duck or a bunny depending on how it chooses to interpret the information. In the second one, your brain took into account the shadow that the green cylinder was casting on the board– thus, your brain tricked you into thinking that tile B must be lighter than tile A (although, really they are the same!) And the third one, your brain saw the arrows in the first one as narrowing in the space, and the second as expanding it–even though the lines are the same length. Pretty cool, right?!

Magic Tricks 

I have always loved a good magic trick. I remember seeing my first “real” magic show in Las Vegas at Harrah’s Casino. I was 11 or 12 I think, and was completely mesmerized by Mac King and his comedy magic show. My family just loved it! We were amazed, and couldn’t figure out how he did what he did.

(This is actually pretty close to what that magic show looked and felt like–so enjoy being transported back to 12-year old Jessica’s life!) 

I still love watching a great magic show. From street magicians like David Blaine to bigger than life magicians like David Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy, magicians have the ability to suspend our belief, challenge our perceptions and allow us to believe we are seeing the impossible.

So what are magic tricks? How do they feel so “real” to us watching?

In a way, magic tricks are very similar to optical illusions. Magicians are truly masters at using the brain to fool us into truly seeing something that did not happen. Magic tricks work based on several key principles. First, as we discussed above, your brain constantly creates perceptions based on the sensory inputs it receives from the environment. As was shown in our “illusions” section, the perception does not always directly match the visual input as our brain integrates vision with our previous knowledge, emotions, experiences, etc. to make predictions and ultimately create perception. These predictions are precisely what is exploited during magic tricks. This great article gives the example of the “vanishing ball” trick. In this trick, the magician throws the ball up in the air several times, and finally on the last one, the ball appears to vanish out of the air. But did it really vanish? Of course not! The magician used our brain’s predictions in his favor…thus, we saw the magician continuing to look up toward the ball, we saw the hand move in a “throwing pattern.” and the brain cut a few corners to tell us the ball had been thrown! While we’re busy watching that magician’s face, the ball is then palmed away, and our brain perceives it has vanished! Pretty cool, right? (check out the article for a larger, more detailed explanation!)

Magic tricks also work by confusing our brain with conflicting inputs and playing with our attention. For example, we are much more easily tricked and distracted when we have to multitask and focus on multiple different things at once. This is common with card tricks and other illusions. Emotions (such as humor, story-telling, etc) can also lead to some brain-trickery as it again creates a distraction for the brain, forcing the brain to “predict” to fill in the missing pieces.

It’s really, quite incredible, and learning about all of this actually has made me respect magicians even more as fellow neuroscientists! Check out these excellent articles if you want to dive a little deeper and further understand more of what happens with magic tricks!

Now…You may be thinking… “What the heck Jessica? This is a “pelvic-focused” blog! Why are you writing about optical illusions and magic tricks!?” Well my dear blog reader, you’ll have to find out… Stay tuned for Part 2- Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You: Pain

Book Review: A Guide to Better Movement

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to build a better morning routine to help me use my time more optimally during the day. Part of that morning routine includes reading for 30 minutes over breakfast…and I have to tell you, it’s my most favorite part of the day. My first book of the year was Todd Hargrove’s  A Guide to Better Movement, and I really really loved it. So much so, that I just needed to share it with you!

Guide to Better MOvementI was first introduced to Todd Hargrove through his blog post back in October, “Why do muscles feel tight?” I loved it, was hooked, and ordered his book the same day. Todd is a pretty smart guy, and has a unique background being a prior attorney and current Rolfer and Feldenkrais practitioner. I love learning from people who are not physical therapists because I find it challenges my viewpoints and helps me to see my clients from a different perspective. Todd’s book did not disappoint.

Who should read it? 

  • Anyone who likes moving, should move, and wants to move better
  • Athletes (yes, this includes any of you who exercise regularly) who want to make sure they are caring for their bodies
  • People experiencing persistent pain
  • Practitioners working with humans who move
  • (Is that broad enough for you?)

What are the details? 

  • Available on Amazon.com for $17.95, paperback  (Click hereA Guide to Better Movement: The Science and Practice of Moving With More Skill And Less Pain)
  • Length: 277 pages, broken into the following sections:
    • Introduction
    • Part 1: The Science of Moving Better
      • Defining Better Movement
      • Learning Better Movement
      • The Brain Maps the Body
      • Motor Development and Primal Patterns
    • Part 2: The Science of Feeling Better
      • The Science of Pain
      • Movement and Threat: Central Governors
      • Movement, Thinking and Feeling
    • Part 3: The Practice of Moving Better and Feeling Better
      • Strategies to Move Better and Feel Better
      • Lessons in Better Movement (pgs 149-277)

What’s so great about it? As you may know, my studies recently have sent me deep into the world of neuroscience, so I love reading books that integrate the whole body rather than just focusing on specific tissues. Hargrove does an excellent job of not only teaching the science related to movement and pain in a way that is easily understandable by clinicians and patients alike, but also offers strategies and lessons for improving movement and shifting away from a pain state. He uses excellent analogies throughout his book that all people will be able to relate to and understand. On another note, his book is full of great quotes… and I’ve always been a sucker for a good quote… so you’ll see some of my favorites here :).

In the first part, the science of moving better, Hargrove discusses the essential qualities of good movement (coordination, responsiveness, distribution of effort, division of labor, position and alignment, relaxation and efficiency, timing, variability, comfort and individually customized). I especially love his section on relaxation and efficiency as I believe this to be a huge factor for the men and women I treat experiencing chronic pelvic pain. So often, these people end up in states of chronically over-activating musculature to perform tasks, and I believe changing this can make a big difference for them. “Efficient movement requires skill in relaxation… thus developing movement skill is often more about learning to inhibit the spread of neural excitement rather than extending it.” 

Next, he goes on to explain the process for learning better movements diving in to the motor control system, and then explains how the brain maps the body and the ways in which those maps can change over time. “The current organization of [a person’s]  sensory  maps already reflects a lifetime of effort to organize them in an optimal way to perform functional goals.”  He uses a great analogy here of a skiier going down a hill. The first trip down, the person has endless options on the path to take down…but after going again, and again, deep grooves in the snow are formed and it can be difficult to take alternate paths.

downhill skiing

Lastly in this section, he discusses motor development and primal movement patterns and the importance of training foundational movements with large carryover into a variety of functional tasks.

Part two, the science of feeling better goes into our favorite topic–pain science. Hargrove does a fantastic job of explaining pain and gives a plethora of examples and analogies to help the reader understand very advanced topics. Two of my faves from this section are,”Although nociception is one of the most important inputs contributing to pain, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for pain to exist,” and, “Pain is an action signal, not a damage meter.” This section also explores different options for moving past pain and discusses how the central nervous system responds with threat in order to protect the body. The last chapter in this section looks at movement and emotion and explains the way we now understand the mind to relate to the body. (Hint: the mind and the body are ONE).

The last section of this book, the practice of moving better and feeling better discusses strategies for improving movement and key components of training movement variety. Hargrove summarizes his thoughts on this in the following way, “Move playfully, experimentally and curiously, with full attention on what you are doing and what you are trying to accomplish. Focus on movements that are the foundation for your movement health, and have a lot of carryover to many activities, as opposed to movements that are specific and don’t have carryover. Move as much as you can without injury, pain or excess threat, wait for the body to adapt, and then move more next time.” 

Hargrove ends the book by providing 25 lessons to help improve movement. These are based on the Feldenkrais Method (which I liked as I currently use some of these principles and movements within my clinical practice.). Each lesson offers options for progressing and provides guidance for attention and variations.

So, in summary…. I loved this book. I have already recommended it to clients, and plan to use some of the movement lessons within my practice. I hope you love it too!

Have you read any other great books recently? I’m looking for my next one to read! 

~ Jessica

Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain

“If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within; secondary reality without.” ~ Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

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Within many traditional clinical practices, mindfulness-based or meditation-based exercises are considered alternative, eastern, touchy-feely or even “voo-doo.” It is often seen as a complementary treatment that may be helpful…but really isn’t going to “treat” the client. I’ve had many clinicians I respect significantly tell me that they don’t use guided meditation within their practice for this exact reason. Respectfully, I have to disagree with that sentiment. I recommend mindfulness-based relaxation or guided meditation to my patients on almost a daily basis, and I believe strongly that there are so many benefits in this practice for a person struggling with persistent pain.

Pain Neuroscience 

To understand why meditation is helpful in overcoming persistent pain, it is crucial to understand what pain is, and to truly grasp the role of the brain in pain (Summary: No brain, no pain). If you are new to this blog, or new to pain science in general, you have a few prerequisites before you move forward:

Ok, I could go on and on…but I won’t. So, we’ll move on.

What is Meditation/Mindfulness Training?  

Mindfulness is described here as a “non-elaborative, non-judgmental awareness of present moment experience.” There are a few different types of mindfulness based meditation practices, usually broken into:

  • Focused Attention: This involves focusing attention on a specific object or sensation (i.e. focusing on breath moving, or focusing on a certain space). If attention is shifted to someone else, the person is then taught to acknowledge it, disengage, and shift the attention back to the object of meditation.
  • Open Monitoring:  This is a non-directed practice of acknowledging any event that occurs in the mind without evaluation or interpretation
  • Variations: There are multiple variations of these practices, usually trending toward one variety or the other. For example, there are guided relaxation exercises which will shift the focus from one body part to another, meditation exercises based on focusing on a color moving through the body, etc.

Meditation and the Brain 

The cool thing is meditation has been found to have some pretty profound effects on the brain. This meta-analysis of fMRI studies aimed to determine how meditation influenced neural activity, and the results were pretty interesting. They found that brain areas from the occipital to frontal lobes were more activated during meditation, specifically areas involved in processing:

  •  self-relevant information (ie. precuneus)
  • self-regulation, problem-solving, and adaptive behavior (ie. anterior cingulate cortex)
  • interoception and monitoring internal body states (ie. insula)
  • reorienting attention (ie. angular gyrus)
  • “experiential enactive self” (ie. premotor cortex and superior frontal gyrus)

Basically, the authors state that all of these areas are characterized by “full attention to internal and external experiences as they occur in the present moment.”

For more information on how meditation impacts the brain, check out this great TEDx talk by Catherine Kerr:

 

Persistent Pain Implications

Now, you may be thinking, why does that matter for a person experiencing persistent pain? Well, it matters because for most people, pain does not solely exist in the present, but rather, is an experience influenced by a complex neural network, integrating 1) what you know about the pain 2) how dangerous you feel it is 3) your history relating to that pain 4) your fears/concerns/worries about the future 5) how this problem relates to your family, job, relationships, home, etc. and 6) so so much more. (including everything helpful and unhelpful your health care providers have told you about your pain.)

Here’s an example. Let’s say you start having some back pain one day after bending over to pick up something off the floor. Happens right? But, what if you used to have back pain years ago and had an MRI that showed degenerative changes in your spine? And what if you have a two year old you have to carry around frequently? What if work has been difficult recently and you’re worried your job is in jeopardy? What if you had a physical therapist tell you that you should never bend down like that or you would “hurt your back?” The amazing thing is that all of these experiences, histories, thoughts, emotions are seamlessly integrated by your brain to determine the immediate “threat level” of your low back, and create an overall pain experience (ultimately, designed to be helpful and protect you against harm).  This story is a real one, and actually happened to a patient of mine…by the time she came into my office, she couldn’t bend forward at all, had severe pain, and was very worried about the level of “damage” in her low back. But, the truth was, she had really just moved in a way that her body chose to guard, and nothing was really “damaged” at all. After a quick treatment session, she was back to full motion without any pain. Now, am I magical in “fixing” backs like that? Yes. But that’s besides the point. But really, all I did was remove the threat level by taking her back to the present moment (ie. Your back is not damaged. Bending is totally fine and functional to do. This is going to get better really soon.) and restore movement to a system that was guarding against it.

So, what does this have to do with meditation/mindfulness? Well, at it’s core, meditation is about changing awareness and improving focus to the present moment. This can then change the “pain story” to decrease the threat level for the present moment, and thus help a person move toward recovery.

Does it work? 

The best part is that it actually seems to make a significant impact (although, of course, we need better larger studies!) Of course, it is just one piece of the puzzle–but I really believe it can be an important component of a comprehensive program to help someone experiencing persistent pain. And, the research actually is trending toward it being beneficial too. In fact, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to be helpful in reducing pain and improving quality of life in men and women experiencing chronic headaches, chronic low back pain,  and non-specific chronic pain.  There have not been many studies looking specifically at chronic pelvic pain, but there was one pilot study I found, and it also seemed to show favorable results in improving quality of life.  Will it take you 10 years of channeling your inner guru to see the benefits? Actually, the research seems to indicate that changes happen pretty quickly. This study actually found improvements after just four sessions.

Getting Started 

If you are experiencing persistent pain, or are a human who happens to have a brain, you would likely benefit from using meditation as part of your daily exercise program (Yes, I consider meditation exercise!) There are so many fabulous resources out there to get started in practicing mindfulness/meditation. Here are a few of my favorites:

Books that are helpful in understanding meditation:

The Power of Nowby Eckhart Tolle- $10 on Amazon 

Peace is Every Step, by Ticht Naht Han- $8 on Amazon 

Free Guided Meditation Exercises ONLINE/APPS-Note, I find different people tend to enjoy different guided meditations/programs. Try a few different ones here, or even go on to youtube and do a little search. You may find some you love and some you hate, and that really is ok. Try to find what works best for you!

Relax Lite with Andrew Johnson– available free on itunes and as an app!

Breathe to Relax– available free on itunes and as an app!

Headspace– available free on itunes and as an app!

Insight Timer– available free on itunes and as an app!

Sattva Meditation Tracker & Timer- available free on itunes and as an app!

Guided Meditation for Pelvic Pain– by Dustienne Miller, PT, available free on her website.

Tara Brach– Great resources with meditations, lectures, and more!

I hope this is helpful for you! What other resources do you enjoy for relaxation/mindfulness/meditation?  Please feel free to share in the comments below!

Wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!!

~Jessica

 

 

Do we move differently in pain?

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 :).

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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!

Cheers!

Jessica

Book Review: Why Pelvic Pain Hurts

I love books. I love picking out a new book, flipping through the pages, and escaping for a small time into a different world. My love of reading translates so easily into my clinical practice in women’s health and pelvic floor physical therapy. Clients who have worked with me know that I keep a shelf of related books in my practice for them to look through and enjoy. I find books are so helpful for my clients experiencing related problems. Often times, men, women and children with pelvic health problems feel alone and so isolated. The reality is that these issues are private ones–I will often treat clients whose own spouses are not aware that these issues are occurring! And there are SO many great pelvic health books out there! The biggest thing I love about my clients reading books is that it helps the to realize they are not alone. So many other people have these problems too–so many that there are books written about it! I also think that reading information helps the learning process for many so much more than just hearing information spoken by me! My hope in “book reviews” is to share some of those awesome books with you, so you can read them, recommend them and learn from them! Whether you are a patient seeking information, a health care provider, or just an interested individual, I hope these reviews will be helpful!  Enjoy! 

from amazon.com

from amazon.com

I am so excited to introduce you today to a wonderful little book called, Why Pelvic Pain Hurts by Adriaan Louw, Sandra Hilton and Carolyn Vandyken. These authors are all physical therapists and both Sandy and Carolyn are Pelvic PTs. To be honest, I’ve followed Adriaan Louw for quite some time now. I have read some of his other educational books such as Why do I hurt? and I have even listened to his online educational seminar via Medbridge called “Teaching People About Pain.” He’s brilliant–so I knew I would love this book from the moment I heard it was being published! Who should read it? 

  • Men & Women experiencing chronic pelvic pain
  • Clinicians working with men and/or women experiencing chronic pelvic pain
  • Families & friends of people experiencing chronic pelvic pain

What are the details? 

  • Cost: $15.69 on Amazon.com
  • Length: 67 pages with great illustrations, broken into 5 sections.
    • Understanding your body’s alarm system
    • Understanding your extra-sensitive alarm system
    • Understanding your pelvic pain
    • Understanding your Lion and how it impacts you
    • Understanding your treatment options

What’s so good about it?  As you may know by reading my blog, I love how the current understanding of pain is so much more than just tissue damage. Our nervous system is powerful and incredible, and is significant in the pain experience. Often times, clinicians run into difficulty when they start talking with clients about the neuroscience related to chronic pain– mostly because these people have had bad experiences in the past with people thinking their pain is “all in their head.” Louw does a great job of emphasizing that pain is a real experience no matter what situation it occurs under, but that pain does not always correlate with tissue damage. Hurt does not always correlate with harm. This book uses fantastic metaphors and stories to help drive home key points. The book begins in the first two sections by describing the nervous system’s involvement in the pain experience, and goes into detail as to how these systems become overly sensitized in a person experiencing chronic pain. I especially love the pages where the authors highlight all of the situations that contribute to a more sensitized system (such as failed treatments, family concerns, fear/anxiety, ongoing pain, etc.) as I think this is such a big piece for people to understand. The next section focuses on pelvic pain specifically, initially beginning with highlighting one of the major problems in overcoming pelvic pain (the “taboo”). They then go on to utilize a wonderful analogy of a measuring cup being “filled” by the 400 nerves in the body passing information to the brain. This measuring cup “overflows” when a large volume of information is being sent or when emotions/stressors surround the experience (like a flame heating the water in the cup). This metaphor is used throughout the book with treatment focused on helping the water to stop boiling over.  The rest of this section goes through various diagnoses related to pelvic pain, but also emphasizes that the pain experience (from a neurological perspective) is the same in most diagnoses despite the differences in the symptoms. Lastly, the authors describe the difference between tissue problems and a sensitive nervous system.

Your metaphorical pain "cup"

Your metaphorical pain “cup”

Section 4 utilizes a fantastic metaphor of being under attack by a Lion and describes in detail how the body feeling under a constant threat of danger and in a strong protective response can contribute to experiences such as tender areas in the body, mood swings, appetite changes, fatigue… and much more! They also describe the other areas in the brain that are involved with pain and the overlap with different tasks (such as sensation, movement, and even memory!). They also maintain compassion and understanding for the experience unique to people with pelvic pain, and beautifully state, “At the core of being human, being alive, there are certain bodily functions that should not only be pain-free, but enjoyable…when you have pelvic pain, you’re not only robbed of pleasure, but the pleasure is replaced with pain. How unfair is that?

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Don’t worry- the book does not end here :). Section 5 discusses treatment options emphasizing that treatment should be aimed at stopping filling or emptying the “cup” or extinguishing the “fire” under the “cup.” Then, the authors systematically go through current treatments including knowledge/education, manual therapy, soft tissue treatment, specific exercises, graded motor imagery, aerobic exercises, medication, sitting posture, breathing/relaxation, sleep, stress management, and activity pacing/graded exposure. Under each of these categories, clear explanations are given as well as recommendations to get started! I could write a whole other blog post on these recommendations…but then you wouldn’t be thirsty for more, would you? So, all of that to say– this was a wonderful book! I strongly recommend it for men and women experiencing chronic pelvic pain– it’s an easy read, cheap, and offers clear recommendations to get started toward pain-free relief. Knowledge truly is power when it comes to recovering from chronic pain. Do you have any questions about the book? Have you read it yet? What books do you love and want me to review next? I would love to hear from you in the comments below! ~ Jessica

Taking the first step: Getting moving when experiencing chronic pain

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As many of you know, I recently took a huge step in my career and moved to Atlanta with my husband, accepting a job as a pelvic health physical therapist for a newly opening private practice with One-on-One Physical Therapy. Leaving my patients behind was one of the hardest parts of moving (if you’re reading this prior patient, I miss you!). One of the things I realized when working to find colleagues to treat my current patients was that I treat quite a number of people with chronic pain. And I love it. When I left Greenville, I would estimate that close to 50% or more of my caseload were men and women who had been experiencing pelvic pain for 6 months or more (and many of them, much longer than that!). Often times, people experiencing chronic pain feel trapped in an inactive state—fearing movement, exercise and even social activities as they correlate increased activity with increasing pain. The sad truth about this is that reality and current research tends to show the complete opposite:

Movement is medicine for chronic pain.

 Now, let’s take a step back…

What is chronic pain and what isn’t it?

 I promise this blog post is going to stay on track. Honestly, there are so many people much smarter than I am who have written amazing books, articles, and blog posts on understanding chronic pain. So, I will be succinct here, but give you some good resources at the end if it leaves you thirsty for more.

In short, all pain is produced by the brain. (Your pain is real, not all in your head, but the brain is always really involved!) Pain is an alarm system used by the brain when it perceives damage or even sees a threat of damage to the body. Pain is there to motivate the body to action—basically to help you eliminate the source of “threat.” Example: I step on a tack. I feel “pain.” I move my foot off of the tack.

This alarm system works really well for situations like the one above. There is a threat. We remove the threat. We feel better. But it is important to recognize that the amount of pain does not always correlate with the amount of damage. Example: A man walks into the emergency room with a knife sticking out of his leg, but isn’t experiencing “pain.” A papercut can be felt as VERY painful.

 The point is, the brain takes information in about our current situation, past experiences, emotions, etc. to create an experience of pain that it perceives as useful to us for the time being. This experience is influenced by situation (i.e. needing to get to the emergency room so the knife doesn’t “hurt”) emotion (i.e. No one knows what is wrong with me, so it must be really really bad!), fears (i.e. I am never going to be able to run again!), and life stressors (i.e. going through a divorce when the pain initially began).  

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 So, how does this relate to movement?

For many people experiencing pain, movement often becomes a “threat” to the brain. For example, if a person is experiencing pelvic pain and the brain believes that walking will worsen the pain, then often walking will be a pain producing activity—to protect you from the “threat” of walking! Over time, the threshold for pain can change and people can become more sensitive to movements or activities—basically, the brain becomes very good at playing the pain “tune.” Lorimer Moseley uses the example of an orchestra in his book Explain Pain. If an orchestra plays the same song again and again, they become very very good at playing that song. Our brain works in the same way.

With that being said, we have learned that if we can help a person to move in a way that his or her brain is not protecting or guarding by pain, we can actually reduce the sensitivity to those movements and help a person get back to an active lifestyle with less pain. This is as true for a person experiencing chronic pelvic pain as it is for a person with chronic low back pain or neck pain or ankle pain.

Does it actually work?

 The awesome part is that research has shown that movement and exercise are extremely helpful in pain reduction!  A meta-analysis in 2014 published by the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that regular aerobic exercise improved pain, disability and depression/anxiety scores in people with low back pain. Another meta-analysis and systematic review published in 2014 by the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that walking exercise helped to reduce pain levels in men and women experiencing chronic musculoskeletal pain. Even pregnant women with low back and pelvic girdle pain see benefits of exercise in pain reduction as noted in this 2012 review by the Journal of the Section on Women’s Health.

To see even more benefits of exercise, check out this awesome video by Dr. Mike Evans:

 

So, how do you get started if you hurt?

The key piece here is that we want to start moving at low pain levels in a way that will be therapeutic for your body—not in a way that will cause your body to guard and produce increased pain. When I treat patients with chronic pain, I start recommending movement at the first or second visit (of course, depending on the specific patient). Here is where I typically start:

  1. Begin with small, manageable movement goals: If you have spent the last 5 years moving from bed to the couch, it is probably not the best thing for you to begin a running program. For these people who have been very sedentary, I recommend starting small by aiming to walk around the house once every hour and perhaps adding in a small series of shallow squats at their kitchen counter along with a few other easy exercises. On the other hand, if you are fairly active, but have avoided regular exercise, try to slowly build up to a routine again. I generally recommend starting at 10-15 minutes and building up to 30-60 minutes depending on the person.
  2. Explore new and different exercise options: I have seen time after time that a person may be frustrated that she cannot do an exercise she enjoyed (i.e. running) so will stop exercising all together. Often times, I find that although one exercise may aggravate symptoms, another will be much more tolerated! I recently worked with a wonderful patient experiencing chronic pubic joint and pelvic pain—she loved walking for exercise, but found that walking was aggravating her pubic joint. We tried exercise in the pool, and she LOVED it! Not only could she begin moving again, but her pain seemed to stay at a low level while she exercised! So explore other options—walking, swimming, yoga, pilates, etc. Be open!
  3. Try not to be afraid of pain: Remember to see pain for what it really is! I often tell my patients that if an activity keeps their pain low or improves their pain, it is likely a good, safe exercise for them to be doing. That being said, sometimes patients will try an exercise and it will severely worsen their symptoms—and that is part of the learning process. Generally, we find if we hold off on that activity for a short time while finding another activity that is more tolerable, we can often return to the other activity at a later date with much lower levels of discomfort.
  4. Work with a team: I always recommend that my patients work closely with myself or another health care provider while they are getting back to movement. Sometimes, it is a little of trial and error learning what movement strategies are the most optimal to start with. Be patient, share your experiences, and be open to suggestion for different things to try!

 So, good luck! Get started, and let me know if you have any questions! Thankfully, I am not by any means the only person who has written on this topic, so check out these excellent resources from my colleagues working with people with pain.

 On Pain & the Brain:

 On Exercise for Pelvic Pain:

Do you have any other resources you love? What has worked for you in the past? PTs, what are your favorite suggestions to give patients? Let’s share and learn together in the comments below!

~ Jessica