A few weeks ago, my husband returned from spending a few days at Barnsley Gardens Resort, where he helped with a fundraising event for the Atlanta Area Boy Scouts of America. Upon his happy return (for all parties involved– single moms: you are rockstars!), he gifted me with a bottle of my favorite relaxing lotion, scented with lavender and peppermint. It is heavenly, and we both adore it! It has become a tradition that he brings me a bottle every time he helps with the event in November. Why do we both love it so much? Well, 3 years ago, we spent 2 wonderful nights at Barnsley Gardens for a mini babymoon. It was our last getaway as a family of two. I was super pregnant, but we ate delicious food, relaxed in the pool, went on evening walks, and slept in. We had an incredible couples massage also, and this lotion was the smell of the spa. We bought a bottle then, and even now, 3 years later, using the lotion evokes feeling of peacefulness, joy, love, and overall relaxation.
So, what happened there? How do brain-smell associations work? (And I know some of you are sitting there thinking…what does this have to do with the pelvis?)
We’ve all been there, right? When I hear the song “Kiss me” by Sixpence None the Richer, I’m transported back to the middle of the summer working as a lifeguard. I smell sunscreen and chlorine and feel the warmth of the sunshine. When I smell a certain blend of middle eastern herbal tea, I’m transported back to Cairo, Egypt where I studied abroad in college, walking through the busy streets at the downtown market. Our brains are incredible like that. Certain memories impact us, and cause our brains to form neurotags– specific patterns of neural activation based on that single input. This is why all of the pieces of the memory come flooding back to you when you have the evoked stimulus (in my case recently, amazing lavender mint lotion).
Now let’s jump into pelvic health, and particularly, chronic pain. What if the brain forms neurotags about pain? For example, what if a person began having pain with sitting, and let’s say, for this example, they experienced a few situations where they needed to sit for a long period of time, and the pain was just awful. As we have discussed many many times, we know that all pain is produced by the brain, that the brain can play tricks on us, and that the brain does change over time due to pain and many other factors. The brain could then, build a neurotag about sitting. Basically, when the person in the above example goes to sit, the brain will activate the neural pathways to remember pain, negativity, perhaps anxiety/stress about the situation, etc. and instead of amplifying the feelings of peace and love (like my lotion!), the brain will amplify the feelings of distress and pain. What about a painful medical examination? A negative sexual experience?
Fascinating, right? So, what can we do about it?
First, recognize a negative neurotag for what it is– your brain recognizing familiarity. And what it is not– a true interpretation of the current situation.
Next, change up the pattern to trick your brain. If you have pain when bending forward to pick something up, can you try the bending motion while lying down (ie pulling your knees up to your chest)? If you had a negative medical exam and start feeling anxious about your appointment, could you see a different provider at a different office? Perhaps request a different position for the exam? If you have pain with sex, could you alter the experience? Maybe this means a different position, different location, different warm-up?
After that, aim to build new, positive neurotags for your brain. How do we build positive neurotags? It can start by building a positive association for your brain. So, this could mean diffusing a calming oil blend while listening to a guided relaxation track. Once this association builds for the brain, you could then try using the same scent within a typically negative situation (assuming you have also removed the negative stimulus!). For people with pelvic floor pain, we often use gentle manual treatment (either with a finger or vaginal trainers) to provide a safe input to the tissues in a way that the brain will not guard and protect by pain. Now, envision pairing that calming scent with gentle pelvic floor muscle desensitization? The options are endless for creativity in building positive neurotags! Movement can also be great to build positive neurotags! If you find that pain limits what you can do, working with a physical therapist to develop movements you can do, that keep you at minimal to no discomfort can help your brain build neurotags for safety with movement again!
If this is fascinating to you (as you know it is to me!), here are a few other resources to check out:
These amazing Vlogs by Jilly Bond, one of my favorite physios across the pond (You may recognize a certain someone in the second video!):
Agency is defined as, “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” What does this mean for healthcare? How does the healthcare consumer maintain and create agency while also navigating the complexities of medicine?
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Washington DC to teach a group of 40+ physical therapists and occupational therapists about working with people who are dealing with various types of pelvic pain. Over this 3-day course, we covered topics related to diagnosis, medical management, manual therapies, movement interventions, and much more. On the third day of the course, I gave a lecture on “trauma-informed care.” What is trauma-informed care? Trauma-informed care means the “adoption of principles and practices that promote a culture of safety, empowerment and healing.” While we do focus on how widespread trauma is, the varying ways people experience trauma, and strategies to develop sensitivity, respect and consideration for the needs of our patients, we also strongly emphasize the importance of treating all patients in this way. One of the key pieces in doing this is helping a person develop a strong sense of agency– the ability to make their own educated decisions and partner alongside their healthcare professionals, instead of being the recipient of directed care.
The idea of agency can seem fairly basic. Shouldn’t every patient feel like they can make their own decisions? Shouldn’t they feel like their healthcare providers are all members of the same team? But, that is often not the case. When a person loses this agency, they can end up in situations where things start happening to them, instead of with them, and this can create difficult and sometimes traumatic experiences. This could be a mother who feels pressured to have a birth intervention she was really not comfortable with having. This could be a person being scolded for not being “compliant” with their recommended home exercise program (as opposed to their clinician understanding what happened and partnering with them to fit exercise in their lives). Or, it could be feeling pressured to continue a painful examination that they otherwise would choose to stop.
There are many reasons why losing one’s agency is detrimental. Remember, the pelvic floor muscles respond to threat. So when a person is in a situation where they feel threat (whether that is due to stress, a difficult situation, or other circumstance), the pelvic floor will activate. When someone is dealing with something like pelvic pain, sexual pain, and other diagnoses, this can lead to a problem becoming worse. So, how can you maintain your agency as a patient?
Ask Questions. All the Questions. “The only stupid questions are the ones that are not asked.” If you aren’t understanding what is being recommended to you, ask more questions for clarification. Your healthcare provider should always be happy to answer any questions you may have to help you make the best decisions for your care. This also applies to times when you are in the middle of a treatment/procedure/etc. Ask away. Try saying:
“Would you mind explaining my options again?”
“Can you clarify what the benefits and risks would be to…”
“Are there any risks in not moving forward with that treatment?”
“What are the reasons you think I need to…”
“I’m sure you have a busy day, but it would really help me if you could answer a few questions.”
Don’t be afraid to slow things down. If your treatment session or medical appointment is going a direction you are uncomfortable with, or if something is happening that you don’t feel like you understand, feel free to take a break. Try saying:
“I need some time to think about that.”
“I would like to take a few minutes to consider my options.”
“I would prefer not to move forward with that today.”
“Can you explain _______ to me again?”
“I’m not sure I understand all of my options.”
“I’d like to go home and think about all of this. I’ll let you know what I think at our next visit.”
Bring a friend. If you know that you tend to get overwhelmed at your appointments and have difficulty expressing your needs or how you feel, consider bringing a friend/partner/spouse who will have your back! Tell them in advance what you want their role to be and how they can help you! This could be stepping in to ask for some time to consider options, asking a provider to slow down and repeat their explanation, or simply being a person to be present with you during a difficult appointment.
I hope these tips have been helpful in helping you develop strategies to create agency as a patient. If you are a healthcare provider, I urge you to reflect on your own practices. Do your words and actions support your patients in maintaining autonomy? support agency? Do you unintentionally pressure patients into participating in treatments or exams that they may not feel comfortable with? Do you shame patients when they don’t follow your recommendations? None of us are perfect. I truly believe that most health care providers have the best of intentions. But, we can all do better. Reflect on our own words, habits, body language, and be better partners for our patients!
What other strategies have you found to help you improve your agency as a patient?
Happy Pelvic Pain Awareness Month! I do plan to post a few blogs on pelvic pain over the course of this month, I promise, but I wanted to quickly share with you a few events I am going to be a part of over the next month!
First, next Wednesday, May 15th, I will be the special guest at a FREE pelvic health education event hosted by PLS Yoga and Wholeheart Psychotherapy, “Women’s Pelvic Health: Key Considerations for Health and Wellbeing for Women Living with Pelvic Pain” The event will run 7-9 pm at 6 Lenox Pt NE in Atlanta! If you are struggling with pelvic pain, please join us for this incredible evening!
Next, on Sunday June 2nd my colleagues and I will have a booth at the Mama Bear Fair, hosted by Dr. Jamie Michael’s chiropractic clinic in Smyrna! Fitting, as this is just 2 weeks before my due date (I did tell you all I was expecting another baby girl, didn’t I?) Stop in between 3-6pm to chat with me about prenatal/postpartum care and pelvic health! RSVP for the event via Facebook!
I hope to see some of you at these events! Please feel free to be in touch if you have any questions!
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!
Did you know that Endometriosis affects more people that inflammatory bowel disease?
Did you know that 10-15% of women (and some men too!!) suffer with endometriosis?
Did you know that they often see 7+ physicians before being diagnosed with the condition?
Endometriosis is so common, and often can be a very life-impacting condition. As a pelvic PT, I often treat individuals with endometriosis, helping them with the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular sequelae of the condition. I have also helped many patients navigate the healthcare system to ultimately receive the appropriate care they so desperately have needed.
In honor of Endometriosis Awareness Month, I asked Dr. Ken Sinervo, the medical director for the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta, GA to spend some time with me discussing this important diagnosis. Dr. Sinervo is an expert in treating endometriosis, and I can’t tell you how lucky I am that his office is about 20 minutes from mine! He is also a kind and humble person and a compassionate physician, and I was so excited to interview him for this post!
In the video below, we discuss:
What is endometriosis and where does it occur?
What are the current theories on the causes of endo?
How can it be treated?
Excision vs. Ablation surgery
How to find an Endo expert
For pelvic PTs: How do you identify patients who may have endo?
And, as an extra bonus, cherry on top, Dr. Sinervo describes the research he is involving in trying to identify potential markers to actually test for endometriosis!!
I hope you enjoy the video as much as I enjoyed interviewing him! I apologize in advance if our video cuts out a little bit, but I don’t think it impacts the incredible content (Our weather in Atlanta was a little struggly, so I think my internet had some difficulties!).
Last week, one of my favorite things to happen in the clinic happened again. A sweet patient I had been working with over the past few months came in to her session, and as soon as we closed the door, she exclaimed, “We had sex and it didn’t hurt!” As a pelvic PT, there is nothing better than sharing in the joy of the successes of your patients. Treating sexual pain is close to my heart, particularly because this was one of the reasons I became a pelvic PT to begin with. “Treating Sexual Pain” was actually the focus topic for my small group mentoring program this month, so I thought it would be fitting to highlight a common treatment tool/strategy used in pelvic PT to help people experiencing painful penetration.
What are vaginal trainers?
Vaginal trainers are tools used to help to desensitize the muscles and tissues of the canal. They are often helpful when a person is wanting to participate in penetration activities, and is having difficulty doing so due to pain. Vaginismus is a particular diagnosis that refers to painful vaginal penetration due to muscle spasm. Women experiencing vaginimus in particular can be very good candidates for this type of treatment program. That being said, trainers can also be helpful for people with pelvic pain in performing self-manual treatment to the pelvic floor muscles, or for other vulvar pain conditions. Trainers also come in rectal variations, and some patients benefit from these as well depending on their primary complaints and goals.
Trainers generally come in graded sizes, often ranging from very small (think pinky finger) to large. There are several different companies that make trainers, and I’ll share a few of the different types here:
Silicone Dilators/Trainers: These are smooth silicone, and bend and move very easily, so they are what I consider to be top-of-the-line trainers. Soul Source and Intimate Rose are two companies that sell these trainers. Both are great, but I do really like how smooth and soft the intimate rose dilators are. These are a little pricey, so range from $18-50 per trainer $80-200 for a set. (As an aside, Intimate Rose was actually designed by a pelvic PT, Amanda Olson, DPT, PRPC. Amanda has excellent resources on her website, including this great video providing a breathing exercise for pelvic pain)
Plastic Dilators/Trainers: These are hard plastic, so they do not move and bend the way silicone trainers do. However, they do tend to be on the cheaper side. Vaginismus.com sells a trainer set including 6 sizes with a handle for about $45. The Berman Vibrating Set includes 4 sizes and often sells on amazon for less than $25. Syracuse Medical also makes a set without handles that is solid plastic, and those trainers are sold individually ($10-20 each) or as a set ($45-80).
How do you decide which to pick?
Well, it depends on a lot of things. Some of my patients prefer to go the cheapest route possible, so for them, it makes sense to get the $25 Berman set off of amazon or the $45 Vaginismus.com set. For others, they really like the softness and bendiness of the silicone sets, so they feel comfortable spending a little more for that type of set. Some sets come with varying sizes, so it is important to pick one that has the sizes you (or your patient) needs to accomplish their treatment goals. Usually, I sit down with my patients, show them a few different sets, then allow them to pick the set they feel the most comfortable with.
Wait…Trainer or Dilator? What’s in a name?
So, you’ll see these terms used interchangeably quite a bit, but honestly, I think the name really does matter. The term “dilator” never really settled well with me…because…well…dilation is a fairly strong word. Dilation refers to passive opening. I think pupil dilation. I think cervical dilation (although one could argue that is not totally passive!). Honestly, dilation is not what we are aiming for when it comes to the pelvic floor muscles. Trainer on the other hand, is an active term. It requires participation, focus, involvement. It is not a passive process, but rather, is an active journey. And that, my friends, is what utilizing trainers to improve penetration should be.
Getting started with trainers
A word of advice- please do not try this on your own. I have had so many patients who become discouraged, sore, or get worse from using trainers without the guidance of a pelvic PT. If you are struggling with sexual pain, and you would like to try trainers, please please please make an appointment with a pelvic PT who can evaluate you and guide you in this process.
Once my patients purchase their trainer sets, I have them bring the trainers to the clinic. We then will use them together in the clinic before they begin using them as part of their home program. I have a few rules when it comes to trainers:
We are gently introducing a new stimulus to the vagina; therefore, we do not want to do anything that leads to the body guarding and protecting by pain. So, when people use trainers, all discomfort should be 2/10 or less, and should reduce while we are using the trainer. (Note: Some very well-intending clinicians will give advice to “insert the largest dilator you can tolerate and leave it there for 10-15 min.” Tolerate is a very strong word, and I find this approach tends to lead to a lot of pain as well as fear and anxiety associated with the treatment.)
We cap out at 10-15 minutes. I encourage patients to set a timer when they start, and whenever that timer ends, to go ahead and end their session. This keeps the session reasonable in time commitment, and also avoids over-treating the area.
We avoid setting “goals” for the sessions or the week. The goal of using trainers is to gently provide graded exposure to the muscles and the tissues, to allow relaxation and opening without anything being threatening or painful. Our muscles are impacted by many different things, so many patients will find that the size of trainer they use or the level of insertion that happens can vary based on the day, week, etc. So, for this reason, we avoid setting a goal to accomplish, but rather, just aim to spend time focused on breathing, relaxation, opening, and gentle desensitization.
So, how do we use the trainers?
My approach to using trainers is strongly influenced by my friend and mentor, Darla Cathcart, PT, DPT, WCS, CLT. Darla was my clinical instructor back when I was getting my doctorate 10 years ago, and her approach to using trainers is gentle, progressive, and based in our understandings of muscles and neuroscience. (As an aside, Darla recently started teaching for H&W and I could not be more excited!! We taught our first class together a few months ago, and we will be teaching together again in 2019!! She is the absolute best, and is actually currently doing her PhD research on women with vaginismus. I’ll try to share more as she gives permission to do so in the future!)
Back to trainers, I encourage people to start with the smallest trainer (or for some, I may recommend a different size based on what I noticed with the exam). First, I encourage creating a comfortable environment to use the trainers– this means calm lighting, comfortable space, pillows to support legs and torso so that muscles can relax, and sometimes even a nice candle or soft music. We begin with placing the smallest dilator at the opening of the vagina, then slowly insert until the person feels discomfort (2-3/10) or guarding. When this happens, we stop moving, and they take slow long breaths focusing on relaxing and opening the pelvic floor muscles. They can then gently (like with 25% force) contract and relax the pelvic floor muscles, aiming to completely let go and rest the muscles. If the tenderness/guarding they felt resolves, they continue to slowly insert the trainer and repeat this process until the trainer is completely inserted. If at any point the discomfort does not reduce, we then will back the trainer out a little bit and rest/breathe there for a minute, then try again. If it still does not reduce, then the body is giving a cue that it is ready to take a break from trainers, and we go ahead and stop the session.
Once the trainer is completely inserted, we add movement. This can include turning the trainer side-to-side, or pressing it right, left or down. We avoid turning or pressing the dilator toward the pubic bone as the bladder and urethra live there, and they don’t generally like being mashed on. We can also move the trainer slowly in and out, stopping again during this process if anything is uncomfortable and repeating the steps above.
One that size trainer is completely comfortable, we move on to the next size and repeat the process. This continues until the 10-15 minute session ends, and then wherever we are, we stop for the day. We can add modifications in to trainer sessions, and this will depend on the particular patient. Sometimes this includes partner involvement with trainers or it can include visualizations or imagery to aid in the process.
With this slow, graded, and gentle approach, I find that most patients can do very well and this can be an excellent treatment to help them achieve their goals! I hope this was helpful in better understanding an approach to this treatment! If you are a patient and think you may benefit from using this approach, I would strongly recommend discussing this with your physician and seeking out a pelvic PT to help you guide the process!
If you are a pelvic PT, feel free to share any additional tips or recommendations you have for trainers in the comments below!
This past weekend, I was fortunate to work with an incredible group of practitioners at a Level 1 Pelvic Floor Course in my home city of Atlanta. I always leave these weekends renewed, excited, and yes, somewhat exhausted ;-). Not only do I get to teach with some pretty incredible colleagues (in this case, Sara Reardon– the VAGINA WHISPERER!!, and Darla Cathcart–who literally is the reason why I practice pelvic health!), but I also get the opportunity to see the transformation of clinicians who start the weekend a little nervous about the possibility of seeing a vulva, and end the weekend confident and empowered to start helping people who are experiencing pelvic floor problems. (Ok, some may not be 100% confident–but definitely on the road to confidence! ;-))
One of my favorite research studies of all time (yes, I am that nerdy) is always shared at this course with participants. This study by van der Velde and Everaerd examined the response of the pelvic floor muscles to perceived threat, comparing women who have vaginismus (painful vaginal penetration) compared to women who don’t.
Throughout my clinical career, the concept of stress and threat worsening pelvic floor problems has been a consistent thread. I frequently hear:
“My job has been so incredibly stressful this week. I am in so much pain today.”
“Everything started this past year…during that time, my parents had been very sick and it was a very emotionally and sometimes physical stressful time for me”
“I’ve been having a severe flare-up of my pain. Do you think the stress that I’ve been dealing with in going through a divorce/break-up/job change/move/new baby/new house/etc. etc. etc. could be related to this?”
Honestly, I could go on and on with continued statements like this. Stress is a complicated topic, and there are many factors involved that can contribute to an alteration or increase in symptoms when a person is in a persistent stressful situation. So, back to my favorite study. In this study, the researchers had the participants watch four different film excerpts that were considered to be: neutral, threatening, sexually threatening or erotic. They then recorded the response of the pelvic floor muscles using EMG. The results of this study were fascinating. They found that with both the threatening stimulus(which happened to be an excerpt from the movie Jaws) and the sexually threatening stimulus (which was an excerpt from a TV movie called Without her Consent–which frankly, sounds awful to me!) the pelvic floor muscles demonstrated increased muscle activity. And this was true in both the groups of women who had vaginismus and the groups of women who did not. (side note: they also saw that the upper traps had this same activation pattern! Makes sense, right?)
Fascinating right? So, what does this mean? I always tell patients that the pelvic floor can be like a threat-o-meter. When a person is experiencing a threat–this can be a physical or emotional threat– the pelvic floor will respond. You can imagine then what happens when that stressful situation or threat stays around for a long period of time! This knowledge alone can sometimes be so empowering for people in better understanding why their bodies might be responding the way that they are.
So what can we do about it?
If you are dealing with pelvic floor muscle overactivity problems or pain, and you find yourself in a stressful or threatening period of time in life, try these ideas:
Be mindful of what is happening in your body: I encourage people to do regular “check-ins” or body scans throughout the day to feel how their pelvic floor muscles and other muscles might be activating. If you feel any muscles gripping, try to see if you can consciously soften and let go of tension you might feel. After doing this, try to take a slow long breath in and out thinking of letting tension release.
Drop it like it’s hot: Your pelvic floor, that is. Several times throughout the day, consciously think about letting your pelvic floor drop and lengthen. If you have a hard time feeling what your muscles are doing, you can try performing a small (think 10-25%) activation first and then think about letting go of any muscle activity.
Don’t be an island: Know that there are so many resources to help you if you need them! Working with a skilled psychologist or counselor can be incredibly beneficial to many people! And, if your pelvic floor is giving you some problems, always remember that you can go see a pelvic PT– yes, even if you had worked with one in the past! We are always here to help you get through life’s hurdles! Sometimes people end up needing little “refresher courses” along the way to help when the body needs it.
So, what are your favorite ways to manage stress? Fellow PTs- how do you help patients handle flare-ups that happen when life starts to get stressful?
I love to hear from you, and meet you! Always feel free to reach out to me here! If you would like to take a course with me, check out the schedule listed on my For Professionals page! I hope to meet you in person soon!
This afternoon, while my rambunctious little toddler was attempting (and ultimately failing!) a nap, I had the fantastic opportunity to chat with Shelly Prosko, a physiotherapist and yoga therapist in Alberta, Canada who specializes in working with individuals experiencing chronic pain (including pelvic pain!). Shelly is an all-around incredible human, knowledgeable clinician, and dynamic educator. I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed it!
Shelly and I chatted about some of the incredible content she has online, so I wanted to make sure I shared all of that information with you! If you would like to see the full playlist of her Words of Wisdom (W.O.W.) Chats, click here.
The individual links to the W.O.W. Chats we discussed are located below:
Lorimer Moseley: Pain Science Education vs Understanding Pain (I absolutely loved this one!!)
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.
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.
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.
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.5Another 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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Over the past week, and really the past year, the cases of sexual abuse and assault perpetrated by Larry Nassar, a medical doctor with MSU and USA gymnastics, have rocked the nation. The horrific abuse he inflicted on well over 150 young women, under the guise of “appropriate medical intervention” is deplorable, and I know many of us were glad to see him held accountable for his actions with both the verdict and sentencing last week.
In the pelvic PT world, this hit very close to home, and made all of us completely infuriated. For this person to take a completely valid, evidence-based and extremely beneficial treatment technique, and contort it into being an avenue for abuse was unfathomable to those of us who have dedicated our careers to helping men and women with pelvic floor problems. Several colleagues have spoken out about this. Particularly, Lori Mize, the incoming Vice President of the Section on Women’s Health, wrote an excellent post for the Huffington Post, that I would strongly encourage you to read.
Over the next year, I want to highlight a variety of treatment techniques used in pelvic floor physical therapy to help you better understand treatment options, and hopefully alleviate some fear that some of you may have about “the unknown.” In light of these current events, I thought it would be meaningful to start by discussing internal manual therapy techniques for the pelvic floor muscles.
What is it?
Internal manual therapy techniques are a treatment used for someone who has overactive, tender and/or shortened pelvic floor muscles. Before we get started, if you want to better understand the anatomy of the pelvic floor, check out this post by my friend and colleague Tracy Sher. Tender or overactive pelvic floor muscles can occur when someone is experiencing problems like pelvic pain, painful sexual intercourse, tailbone pain, as well as urinary or bowel dysfunction.
These techniques are performed either vaginally or rectally by a skilled medical practitioner who has undergone advanced training to learn to evaluate and treat the pelvic floor muscles. They are only performed once the patient has been thoroughly educated about the treatment techniques and consents to participating in the treatment.
What does treatment involve?
The goal of internal manual therapy is to improve the relaxation, lengthening and tenderness of the pelvic floor muscles. Generally, the patient is first positioned comfortably in either hooklying (on their back with knees bent, sometimes resting on a pillow– yep, no stirrups needed!), sidelying or sometimes on their stomach, depending on what position is preferable to the patient and allows the therapist access to the tissues being treated. The therapist then places one gloved finger within the vaginal or rectal canal and gently presses on the muscles of the pelvic floor to identify (with constant feedback from the patient) where the muscles are tender or uncomfortable. Manual therapy techniques then can be performed to help improve the tenderness of these muscles and promote relaxation and lengthening. These techniques can include:
Holding gentle pressure while the patient focused on relaxing and breathing
Holding gentle pressure while the patient performs a contact/relax of the muscles or a pelvic floor bulge.
Holding gentle pressure while simultaneously pressing with the opposite hand on a point around the pelvis to produce slack in the muscle (a modified strain counter strain technique.
Sweeping stretches over the muscle belly
Different therapists have different approaches, but they all are done in complete collaboration and communication with the patient and are modified based on the patient’s comfort and response to the treatment. Personally, I tend to prefer more gentle approaches while also focusing globally on improving awareness and calming the nervous system. This is not a “no pain no gain” situation– in fact, most often we see the best results when we are able to keep pain at a very minimal level.
What type of training should the therapist have?
It is very important that the person performing this treatment has had specialized training in this technique. At minimum, they should have attended an initial continuing education course that teaches a beginner level evaluation and treatment of the pelvic floor, generally weekend course including at least 24 hrs of instruction. Many training programs now include a 3 or 4 course series, and I strongly encourage clinicians to complete the coursework to learn how to comprehensively care for their patients. At Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, the organization I am a faculty member of, we have a 4-course series which includes a level 1, 2A, 2B and Capstone. The Section on Women’s Health has a 3- course series and there are now several other companies offering varying training programs. Of course, I’m biased as a faculty member of H&W and if you’re reading this and work in healthcare in pelvic rehab, you should definitely come to one of my courses!
Who does this treatment help?
As I mentioned above, manual therapy to the pelvic floor is helpful when a person has overactive, tender and/or shortened pelvic floor muscles that are contributing to the problem they are experiencing. This can occur when a person has pain in and around the pelvis or if the person is experiencing urinary, bowel or sexual dysfunction.
We are producing more and more research about these techniques every day, but here are a few snippets:
In this study, 50% of the men treated to address chronic scrotal pain saw a significant reduction in their pain.
In this study, 93 people were treated with pelvic floor techniques to address coccyx pain (as well as pain after coccyx removal). Overall, they saw an average of 71% improvement.
This study compared comprehensive pelvic PT to cognitive behavioral therapy for women with provoked Vestibulodynia. They found that 80% of the women in the PT group had significant improvements compared to 70% in the CBT group.
This study evaluated the effects of pelvic floor physical therapy techniques on pain reduction in men who had chronic pelvic pain. Treatment included internal and external techniques and over 70% experienced moderate or robust improvements.
This study found that 62% of women experiencing urinary frequency, urgency and/or bladder pain who were treated with physical therapy interventions, including internal manual therapy techniques, reported feeling “much better” or “very much better” following the interventions.
I hope this was helpful and removed some of the fear from this technique! If you think this treatment may be a helpful one for you, talk with your health care provider! As always, I love to answer any questions you may have!