Last summer, Sara Sauder asked me to collaborate with her and Amy Stein on a submission to Sexual Medicine Reviews, highlighting the role physical therapy can play in helping men and women with sexual dysfunction. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with Amy and Sara, and for the next year or so, we worked together to create “The Role of Physical Therapy in Sexual Health in Men and Women: Evaluation and Treatment.”
In this article, Amy, Sara and I discuss the role the pelvic floor muscles play in sexual health and common dysfunctions that can occur. We also discuss the process of physical therapy evaluation and treatment for sexual dysfunction, as well as the evidence regarding the efficacy of such treatments. Submitting to a peer-reviewed journal was humbling and exciting, and honestly, gave me much more respect for the process. I have been wanting to get involved with research for some time now, and I hope that this will be a springboard to more involvement and more writing.
The journal gives authors access to full-text of the article for the next 45 days, and I am excited to have the opportunity to share it with all of you!! Please let me know what you think of the article, and enjoy!
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!
“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!