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!
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.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 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Dorpat, T.L. (1971) Phantom sensations of internal organs. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 12(1), 27-35.
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!
So, as you may have realized, I periodically write about topics that hit close to home. This was especially true while I was pregnant and trying to live the advice that I often give to patients (Teaser: Do as I say, not as I do.). As a mom to a now 1-year-old, the topic of self-care has been on my mind quite a bit recently. I remember when my daughter was 6 months old, going to the dentist. As I tried to come up with a reason why they hadn’t seen me in almost a year, the best I could do was to honestly say, “Really, I haven’t done much of anything to take care of myself since my daughter was born.” And guess what? It was totally true. I was having a hard time getting back to exercise. I wasn’t sleeping all that well (I mean, who sleeps well with a new baby? If it’s you, don’t tell me.) And, I had skipped many of the typical self-care things that I normally enjoy doing regularly.
My experience unfortunately is not that unique to many new moms (and old moms, and lots of other people too!). In discussing this with my friends and patients, I often find that people live very busy lives and struggle with prioritizing themselves amidst an often hectic schedule. By the time we wake up, make lunches, get everyone out the door, work a busy job, cook dinner, tidy up the house, prepare for the next day, etc… there really doesn’t seem to be time left. The idea of adding in an hour for exercise, meal-prepping or seeing a doctor/dentist/physical therapist can feel impossible.
But, the truth comes down to two key points:
- We have time when we make time.
- When we care for ourselves, we actually care better for others.
Did you know that stress can worsen chronic pain? And that stress is connected to all sorts of illnesses (like heart disease, among others?) Did you know that exercise has all sorts of amazing benefits? (see the awesome whiteboard video below)
In short, when we care for ourselves through exercise, quiet time/meditation, quality time with friends/family, or necessary medical/dental/physical therapy visits, we actually equip our bodies with the tools we need to better handle the stress that comes our way and ultimately, to better care for the important people in our lives.
So, how do you make time for self-care?
- Set a realistic expectation: If you do not currently exercise at all, don’t start with a goal of exercising every day. You will probably fail. Instead, make a goal at exercising 2-3 times in the week. If you know that your mornings are completely hectic and busy, that may not be your best time for quiet time/meditation. Instead, perhaps in the evenings as you are wrapping up your day may be a better time.
- Be specific on your when, what and how: When I was in PT school, we learned that goals should be objective, measurable and achievable. This not only sets our patients up for success, but lets us evaluate if our intervention is working. So, if your goal is to exercise, try being specific on your when, why and how. For example, I could aim to run 30 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after work. The more specific and scheduled, the more likely you will be to achieve success.
- Get help when you need it: If it is challenging to hold yourself accountable, talk to a friend or a partner to get some help. Verbally expressing your goals and detailed plan to another person can often help provide the necessary support and accountability for success. If you know you need more tangible help to be successful, make sure to ask for it. This may mean something like planning ahead with your partner to manage childcare responsibilities or it could mean finding a friend who will actually go and exercise with you.
What other strategies do you have for self-care? How have you been successful in the past?
As always, I would love to hear from you!
“Does that feel tender or uncomfortable to you at all?”
“Well yeah, but it’s because you’re pushing on it. I mean, I think anyone would hurt if you pressed there.”
This conversation is a common one that takes place in my treatment room. As a physical therapist specializing in pelvic health, I am frequently the first person to actually examine in detail the muscles of the pelvic floor by a vaginal or rectal digital assessment. Tenderness in the muscles on examination is very common in those experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction; however, this is often surprising to many people. The assumption that “everyone” would have tenderness in their pelvic floor muscles is extremely common, especially if the person doesn’t have a primary complaint of vaginal or rectal pain to “explain” the pain they feel.
Should healthy pelvic floor muscles be tender? Does everyone have tender pelvic floor muscles?
It’s an important question with far-reaching implications. If everyone has tenderness in their pelvic floor muscles, then would it really matter if I found it on an examination? Would it be a waste of time to focus our energy in the clinic on trying to reduce that tenderness? Thankfully, research thus far has helped to shed some light on this issue. In summary, healthy muscles should not hurt. Thus, tenderness does help us see that some type of dysfunction is present. Let’s look at the research.
- Montenegro and colleagues (2010) examined 48 healthy women as well as 108 women with chronic pelvic pain. They found that 58% of the women with chronic pelvic pain had pelvic muscle tenderness compared to just 4% of healthy subjects. They also, of note, found higher rates of pain during sexual intercourse and constipation in those who had pelvic muscle tenderness.
- Adams and colleagues (2013) found the prevalence of pelvic floor muscle tenderness in 5618 women referred to a university-based practice to be around 24%. They also found that women with tenderness had higher levels of bothersome symptoms related to prolapse, bowel and bladder dysfunction (by close to 50%!)
- Hellman and colleagues (2015) examined 23 women with chronic pelvic pain, 23 women with painful bladder syndrome and 42 pain-free control subjects. They found that the two groups experiencing pain had increased pain sensitivity with lower pain-pressure thresholds compared to the pain-free subjects. They also had a longer duration of pain after the initial sensation (3.5 minutes vs. 0-1 minute in controls)
- What about in pregnancy? Well, Fitzgerald and Mallinson (2012) examined 51 pregnant women– 26 with pelvic girdle pain and 25 without–and guess what they found? Significantly more women in the pain group had tenderness at the pelvic floor muscles and obturator internus compared to the group without pain.
- What about in women who have never been pregnant? Well, Kavvadias and colleagues (2013) examined 17 healthy volunteers who had never been pregnant and found overall very low pain scores with palpation of the pelvic floor muscles. They concluded that pain in asymptomatic women should be considered an uncommon finding.
So, in summary. Healthy muscles should not hurt. If you are having problems like urinary, bowel or sexual dysfunction and you have tender pelvic floor muscles, this may be something worth addressing! See a pelvic PT– we are happy to help!
Have a wonderful week!
Did you know that over 80% of women experience painful periods? And for some women, the amount of pressure in the uterus from those cramps can be just as severe as labor pains?
As someone who has been in labor recently, I can tell you that it is no cakewalk. The truth is that menstrual pain (Dysmenorrhea) is a significant problem for many women. In fact, this study found that in a group of 269 female college students, 84% experienced pain in the abdomen and back, 84% experienced mood swings and 48% experienced dizziness. Another interesting stat from this study: 48% felt like their academic performance was impacted. (and I would bet women out of school probably feel like their work and home life are impacted too!)
With menstrual pain impacting women as much as it does, it is surprising how few effective pain-reducing options we have. Most women turn to pain relievers like tylenol and ibuprofen, but the effectiveness of those in actually reducing the pain isn’t really that great. The great news is that there are many ways in which physical therapy can actually help with menstrual pain, and several studies have shown that many physiotherapy interventions are just as (if not more!) effective as pain medications.
So, what can physical therapy do to help with those painful cramps?
Movement is what we do in physical therapy, and certain exercises which help with movement of the spine and abdomen can be very helpful in improving pain levels. This study, in particular, found that certain yoga postures–Cat, Cobra and Fish– helped with reducing pain. Another study found that a physical therapy program including aerobic exercise, strengthening, stretching and relaxation led to a reduction in pain during menses.
So, modalities sometimes get a bad rap in the physical therapy world. And I get it, they are passive (meaning you, as the patient, don’t really have to do anything), and they are frequently over-used in cases when an active approach can be more helpful. But, certain modalities have been shown to be very helpful in reducing menstrual pain. In particular, applied hot packs were found to be equally beneficial to pain medication in this study! Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) applied to the low back/sacrum and/or abdomen has also been shown to have excellent results. The great thing about both of these options is that they are easy, reusable and effective options for a woman to use monthly without having to ingest medication.
Manual Therapy Interventions
The research regarding manual interventions for painful periods is honestly not fantastic, however, there have been some studies that have shown that treatments such as connective tissue mobilization, massage and acupressure have been helpful in reducing menstrual pain. When I used to work at a large clinic, many of my female co-workers would seek connective tissue mobilization and other soft tissue mobilizations from colleagues when having painful cramps. Clinically, I have seen that working with someone to reduce muscle sensitivity and tenderness (both in the pelvic floor muscles as well as muscles around the pelvis) does seem to reduce cramping during menses. I’m not positive the exact mechanism for this, but my working theory is that improving the “threat level” from muscles and tissues around the pelvis has effects that transfer to other situations (like cramping during periods), so the “threat level” during this situation is also reduced. I also think that hormones play a role in this as the tissues at the vulva/urethra are sensitive to estrogen, but also impacted by muscles and blood flow. So, hormonal changes that occur within a normal cycle (that lead to cramping, etc) could then be impacted by a decreased blood flow and decreased tissue mobility, thus causing the discomfort from cramping to be worsened. There you go, that’s my working theory.
So, in summary, if you’re having pretty bad cramping during your periods, know that there are some options to help! Often times, women are the WORST at just dealing with problems they have (and things like painful cramps are often blown off by friends, family members and other healthcare providers!) If this sounds like you, it may be worth seeing a pelvic PT for a consultation to help you build a robust and effective toolbox for managing your pain!
What other options have you found helpful in reducing cramping pain during periods? I always love to hear from you! Have a great week!
**Note: If your menstrual cramps are severe and truly limiting your life, make sure that your healthcare provider knows about it! There are some medical conditions which can contribute to severe cramping, and there are treatments available.
“Ok, TMI…but is everyone having sex again? We tried last night and OMG it was awful! So painful!!”
I clicked on the thread in one of my Facebook moms groups, and slowly looked through the comments, hoping to see words of encouragement, support, and most importantly, solid health advice.
“I know, me too. I just try to avoid it as much as I can.”
“What is sex? LOL”
Then, I began my comment, “Hi, I’m a pelvic PT and also the mom to a 6 month old. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. It’s so important to know that pain is not something you have to live with. There is help out there…”
Why is painful sex after childbirth so overlooked in healthcare? Why do so many women feel like they just have to live with this as a normal “consequence” of having a baby?
This past fall, I went through the craziest initiation process to join one of the most exclusive clubs out there: Motherhood. It has been an incredible and humbling journey for me, especially as a health care provider who specializes in helping women with problems they experience while pregnant and postpartum. Becoming a mother has allowed me to experience and witness first-hand many of the challenges women face after having babies.
Pain during sexual activity is extremely common after childbirth (Note: I said common…NOT normal). In fact, a large study of over 1000 women found that 85% experience pain during their first vaginal intercourse postnatally. At 3 months postpartum, 45% still were experiencing pain and at 18 months postpartum, 23% were still experiencing pain. Let that sink in. When a mother’s baby is 18 months old, 1 in 5 mamas had pain during sex! And the sad thing is that pain during sexual intercourse is SO treatable!! So, let’s get down to business…
Why could sex hurt after a baby?
Perineal Trauma from Childbirth
Spontaneous tearing and episiotomies are very common during vaginal deliveries. In fact, this study looking at 449 women who had at least 1 delivery found that only 3% of them did not have any tearing/episiotomy. Many women are able to heal from tears without problems. However, for some women, these injuries can become sources of pain, especially during sexual intercourse. This is especially true with more severe tears extending into the external anal sphinctor and rectum (grade 3-4 tears). This study found that women who had tears extending into the anal sphinctor were 3-4 times more likely to have pain during intercourse at 1 year postpartum compared to their counterparts. Perineal scars can be very sensitive and move poorly in some women leading to persistent discomfort which can last for years after the baby is born when it is not treated (but guess what? It CAN be treated!)
Anyone who has had a baby can attest to the crazy hormonal fluctuations that happen during pregnancy and postpartum. One of my very best friends warned me about this telling me that she cried every day for the first week after the baby was born. Guess what? So did I. These crazy hormones can also impact what is happening down below, especially in breastfeeding mamas. Basically, the hormonal changes lead to decreased estrogen in the vulvar tissues often causing thinning and dryness. This is why breastfeeding is associated with painful sexual intercourse early on postpartum. Now, if you are reading this and you are a nursing mama like myself, should you stop to fix your sexual discomfort? Not necessarily. This study found that although nursing was associated with dyspareunia at 6 weeks postpartum, the association was eliminated by 6 months. Meaning, stopping nursing won’t necessarily fix the problem (so don’t let this be your deciding factor in the decision to breastfeed your babe).
Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles
The pelvic floor muscles themselves can become big sources of sexual discomfort if they are tender, shortened or irritated after childbirth. Perineal trauma and hormonal changes can lead to tenderness in the pelvic floor muscles, but the muscles can also stand on their own. Many people believe that C-sections protect the pelvic floor muscles from having problems, however, we have to remember that the pelvic floor are one member of a team of muscles (including the deep abdominal muscles, low back muscles and respiratory diaphragm) that work together to provide support and stability to the pelvis. That could be partially why C-section mamas are actually 2-3 times more likely to experience more intense pain during sexual intercourse at 6 months postpartum.
Because Babies are Hard
I had to add this one in. It’s important to remember than normal sexual function should include sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm. New mamas are exhausted, feeding sweet little babies around the clock, settling into a new routine whether they are returning to jobs or caring for their babies at home, sleep-deprived from often waking up multiple times a night, changing diapers, and worrying constantly about helping these little babies survive and thrive. And honestly, it can be really hard for many moms to have the same level of sexual desire and arousal that they had prior to having their babies (at least until life settles down– or I’m told–when the babies go to college LOL). When a woman experiences sexual desire and arousal, there is natural lubrication and lengthening of the vaginal canal, and this step is so important in having enjoyable sexual activity. Sometimes, when this step is skipped, women are more likely to experience discomfort with vaginal penetration.
So, what can be done to help?
Realize it is not normal. Don’t just deal with it. And check-in with your Obstetric provider.
The first step is seeing your OB or midwife to make sure everything is ok medically. She should evaluate you to make sure everything is healing the way that it should be healing and that nothing else is going on that needs to be managed medically. I have had patients who have had difficulties healing after tears and needed some medical help to encourage their tissues to heal the way they needed to. I have also worked with women who had underlying infections contributing to their pain, that of course, needed to be treated to move forward. This is not a step you should skip, so don’t be bashful! Tell your doctor what is going on.
Don’t be afraid to use a little help.
I get it. You never had to use lubricant before, and it’s annoying to have to use it now. But guess what? It can make a HUGE difference in reducing discomfort from thin or dehydrated vulvar tissues after babies! So, if you don’t already have a good one, go pick out a nice water-based lubricant to use. Some of my favorites for my patients are Slippery Stuff and Sliquid. I am also a big fan of coconut oil (but make sure to know that using it with condoms can cause condom breakdown).
If you are having difficulty with sexual arousal and desire since having your baby, and you feel comfortable with it (I know, some women don’t!), try using a small vibrator to help with improving sexual arousal and promoting orgasm. Many sex therapists I work with encourage couples to consider using this on days when they need a little assistance attaining the arousal they need.
Educate your sexual partner and empower them to help you
It can be so helpful to include partners in this process. Show them this blog post, so they can understand what could be going on, and empower them to help you! For some women having difficulties with arousal, having their partner do something like clean up after dinner and put the baby to bed so they can have time for a quiet relaxing shower can be just the ticket to helping them become more sexually aroused to decrease sexual discomfort. If you are having problems with painful perineal scars or pelvic floor muscles, consider including your partner in your medical or physical therapy visits so they can understand what you are experiencing. Many pelvic PTs (like myself) will often educate partners in methods to help with decreasing pain , and even in treating the pelvic floor muscles/scars (if both people feel comfortable and on-board with this!).
Go see a pelvic PT!
If you have tender pelvic floor muscles or painful scars, all the lubricant and sexual arousal in the world is not going to fix the problem. Working with a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be hugely beneficial in identifying where and what the problem is, and helping you move forward from pain!
A skilled physical therapist will spend time talking with you the first visit to understand your history (including specifics of your delivery), and will perform a comprehensive examination, head to toe, to see how your body moves, where you might not be moving as well as you could be, and how you transfer force through your body. They will also perform an examination of the abdominal wall (especially important for C-section mamas), and an internal vaginal examination of the pelvic floor muscles. Based on this examination, they will be able to work with you to develop a plan to help you optimize the function of your body and get back to a happy and healthy sex life!
This is first in likely a few series of posts I will be doing on postpartum specific problems. I hope you all enjoy! Please please please reach out if you have any questions at all!
Have a wonderful week!