I often get asked why I chose to become a pelvic PT. Many people postulate that I have my own pelvic health challenges (I do…but those came later after 2 c-sections). Others assume I’ve always been super into the pelvis. But neither is really the case. The answer is quite a long one… but, honestly, it all came down to the patients.
Sometimes you have a moment in time that ends up defining the trajectory of your life (if you know, you know). And for me, this moment happen during a rotation in Shreveport, LA, while I was working on my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree through Duke University. I had an amazing clinical instructor (Darla Cathcart, who I now teach with through Herman & Wallace), and we were working with a patient who had been experiencing painful sex for as long as she had ever tried to have sex. I remember her talking with us during her initial evaluation, telling us about the relationships that had ended because of this, and tearfully explaining how she wanted this to not be a factor for her current relationship.
Fast forward, several visits later, she came in for her session, sat down, and started crying. She looked up and said, “I had sex, and it didn’t hurt.” I still get goosebumps as I right this. I got goosebumps in that moment. And, it was then and there that I KNEW that I had to help more people like her. I felt such clarity in my path. And I have never looked back.
Painful sex is extremely common. In fact, some studies show that it impacts around 20% of women. Yes, my friend, that is 1 in 5. However, women aren’t the only ones dealing with pain during or after sex. All people can deal with it– regardless of gender or anatomy. And, it really tends to be one of those things that just isn’t talked about. Nearly every time I post about painful sex on social media, I end up with private messages from people who have been dealing with pain for years, and just thought it was normal. Common does not mean normal. A little louder (for the people in the back):
Just because pain during sex is common, does NOT mean it is normal. Not if you:
Have had a baby
Have never had sex before
Have had sex a lot
Have been told you are small
Think your partner may be large
Have had problems with bladder or other infections
Have sensitive skin
While some of these factors may make someone more likely to have pain during sex (like if you had a baby and had a tear that took a while to heal), this still does not mean that pain is just something you have to deal with. Honestly, there are so many reasons why someone might have pain with sex. It could be related to:
Painful scar tissue
Orthopedic challenges (especially around the hip or low back)
Bowel dysfunction (hello constipation)
Conditions like endometriosis/adenomyosis, painful bladder syndrome/IC, or others.
Pelvic floor and abdominal muscle challenges
And many, many other things! And so so many different treatments to help! This can include finding the right moisturizers and lubricants for your body, additional medical interventions (medications, hormone creams, and more!) and working with a pelvic health specialist to help you optimize your pelvic floor muscles (through gentle manual therapy techniques, home exercises, lots of education, and a whole lot more!)
If you’ve been dealing with pain during sex, please know that you are not alone.
So so many other people deal with this too. And the great news is that enjoyable sex is possible for you. We can get there. There is treatment available. There are compassionate clinicians who care (if yours didn’t, pllleeeeasssseee go see a new one!). And we can work together to get you feeling better.
I have so much more to say about this!! But for now, I’m going to leave you with a few links for prior blogs with more information!
A few weeks ago, I connected with Noa Fleischaker, the founder of Tight Lipped. This organization started as a podcast in 2019, and has grown to reach over 3000 people from 58 countries around the world. Tight Lipped is all about supporting people who have been struggling with vulvovaginal pain conditions– problems like vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, pelvic pain, painful sex, and more. They share stories to build community, normalize often very private problems, and advocate for better care. They recently published their first Zine, “Opening Up,” and it is a beautiful compilation of art and stories from people who have dealt with vulvovaginal pain conditions. I received my copy last week, and it is in our waiting room as I type this!
I hope you enjoy this interview and connect with Noa’s message! If you would like to support the work of Tight Lipped, please visit their website! They also have events, meet-ups (with one coming up this week!!), workshops, and book clubs! So check it out and connect with this amazing group!
May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month, so I thought it was only fitting to write something about pelvic pain before the month is over. Pelvic pain impacts so many people, in fact, the International Pelvic Pain Society estimates that over 25 million women suffer from chronic pelvic pain. While the number is generally lower in men, some studies estimate that around 1 in 10 men experience chronic pelvic pain (often termed chronic prostatitis).
Next week, my clinic is officially re-opening our doors for in-person sessions, after operating completely virtually for the past 2.5 months! During this time, I tried to stay as connected to our patients as I could, and sent out a newsletter each week full of pelvic health tidbits. One of the new things I created was a daily movement sequence for pelvic pain, and I wanted to share it with all of you here!
Before we get started, you should know a few things about pelvic pain. First, each person with pelvic pain is a unique entity. So, while this sequence can feel lovely for many people with pelvic pain, some may not be quite ready for it. For others, they may find that doing it actually increases their pain (clearly, not our goal). For rehabilitation for a person with pelvic pain, it is very important that exercises, movements and activities are done at a threshold that does not increase or aggravate pain or discomfort. This is, as we have spoken about very often, because we want to create positive movement neurotags for the brain. Basically, we don’t want your brain to think that movement is bad or dangerous (because as we all know, it should not be bad or dangerous!). If we do movements that increase our discomfort and make us feel worse, the brain can build a connection between moving that way and bad/pain feelings. Instead, we like to move at a threshold where the body does not guard or protect by pain. So, why am I telling you this? Because, if you start doing these movements and your symptoms worsen, or it doesn’t feel therapeutic to you, you need to stop doing it and see a pelvic floor therapist who can evaluate you comprehensively and help you develop a specific movement plan that IS therapeutic to YOU. And lastly, remember that anything on this blog is not in any way a replacement of in-person care. You need to consult with your interdisciplinary team (your physician, PT, etc!) to determine the best approach for your health! (And if you’re not sure, schedule a virtual consult with a member of my team to help figure out where to go next!)
Daily Movement Sequence for Pelvic Pain
So, let’s break down this sequence.
If I could give any person with pelvic floor problems a single exercise to do, it would be this. The breath is SO powerful, and sync’d with the pelvic floor. For diaphragmatic breathing, you want your breath to move into your belly, expand your ribcage in all directions, then lift your chest. A misconception of diaphragmatic breathing is that the chest should not move at all, and this is FALSE. The chest should lift–but–so should the ribcage and the abdomen. You can do this in sitting or lying down. As you inhale, aim to lengthen and relax your pelvic floor muscles, then exhale, allowing your muscles to return to baseline. Start your sequence with 2-5 minutes of this breathing. (and toss in some focused relaxation of each part of your body while you’re doing it!)
Happy Baby or “the Frog”
This one is a key movement for anyone with pelvic pain! To perform this, lie on your back and bring your knees up to your chest. Reach your arms through your legs to grab your lower shins, support your legs using your arms, and allow your knees to drop open. You can alternatively hold your legs at your thighs, depending on your comfort and your hip mobility. From here, aim to let go of muscle tension. Then, take slow breaths, directing your breath to lengthen and open your pelvic floor muscles. This is a great position for relaxation and lengthening of the pelvic floor!
This is a nice movement to warm up your spine and practice using small amounts of tension to perform a graded movement (you know I love my slow movements!) For this exercise, you will lie on your back with your knees bent. Then inhale in to prepare, exhale and slowly begin to roll up off the mat, lifting your tailbone, then sacrum, then low back, then mid back, then shoulder area. At the end of your exhale, slowly inhale, reversing the movement. You can repeat this 5-15 times, and do 1-3 sets. (Vary this based on what feels healthy and helpful to you!). Sometimes people get back pain when they do this (usually their back muscles are trying to do the job of the glutes). So, if this happens, try to bring your feet closer to your buttocks, and press through your feet while you are lifting. If it still happens, stop the exercise, and talk to your physical therapist.
Reach and Roll
I love this exercise for improving mobility of the upper back (thoracic spine). For this exercise, lie on your side with your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees, arms stacked in front of you at shoulder level. Inhale, reaching your top arm forward, exhale, and slowly roll your hand across your chest, opening to the opposite side. Keep your hips stacked so you don’t rotate through your low back. Pause here and inhale in, letting your ribcage expand, then exhale letting the hand glide across your chest to meet the opposite hand again. Repeat this movement 5-10 times on each side (You can do a few sets if you would like!)
So, this is another one of my top exercises. I love the cat-cow as it promotes segmental mobility of the lumbar and thoracic spine into flexion and extension. It is another great movement to encourage minimal tension, and coordination of breath, so it’s a big favorite for people with pelvic pain. To do this, get into a quadruped position (hands and knees, with hands aligned under shoulder and knees aligned under hips) Inhale, allowing your tailbone to come up and your back to dip down, head looking up. Exhale, dropping your head down, rolling your back up and tucking your tailbone. Perform this movements slowly, using small amounts of tension. Repeat this 10-15 times, 2 sets. You can alternate each set with child’s pose, listed below.
Child’s Pose (Wide-Kneed)
Child’s pose is a beautiful exercise that also encourages opening and lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. It is nicely performed between sets of Cat-Cow. I like to modify this slightly by bringing the knees into a wide position to further encourage relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles. To perform this, begin in the quadruped (hands/knees) position as above. Open the knees into a wider position, keeping your feet together. Drop your pelvis back toward your feet, reaching your arms forward and relaxing down toward the mat. You can use a pillow (or 2 pillows!) to support your trunk and decrease how deep your child’s pose goes. Hold this position (and make sure you are totally comfortable!) for 60-90 seconds, breathing in long, slow breaths, encouraging lengthening and opening of your pelvic floor. Repeat this 2 times, preferably, interspersed with the Cat-Cow exercise.
And there you have it. My daily sequence for people with pelvic pain to get some movement in!
There are so many other great exercises for people with pelvic pain! Do you have any favorites I didn’t include in this sequence? Any movement challenges you want help solving? Let me know!
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.
I have been asked this question several times over the past few years, by searching, hopeful women, looking for help after suffering from vulvar pain for far too long. I generally respond with, “I’m familiar with Glazer’s protocol, and would be happy to discuss it with you. Why don’t you come in for an evaluation and we can discuss treatment options specific to you?” This, in place of the, “I know it, but it’s more than likely not appropriate for you.”
Glazer’s protocol was a popular treatment approach, utilizing SEMG biofeedback to teach patients a method of contracting their pelvic floor muscles, to ultimately “fatigue” the muscles, and with the hope that doing so would relieve pain. Dr. Glazer was one of the first to publish research about treating the pelvic floor muscles in helping women with Vulvodynia, and all of us working with men and women with pelvic pain are grateful for his contributions.
Sara and Amy very eloquently explain how the understanding of treatment to the pelvic floor muscles have changed over the years. Glazer’s protocol was based off the idea that frequent contractions of the pelvic floor muscles (both holding contractions and quick ones) would fatigue the muscles and thus lead to relaxation and pain relief. However, our current understanding of the pelvic floor musculature is quite different.
Shortened, Tender Pelvic Floor Muscles
Amy and Sara go on to explain that as we have learned about the pelvic floor and seen the presentations of women experiencing vulvar pain, we have found that most women actually present with shortened, tender pelvic floor muscles. Typically, when this is found on examination, the optimal treatment includes a combination of relaxation strategies as well as manual treatment vaginally to encourage lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles. And what about fatiguing them by doing lots of kegels? Well, we have found that when shortened muscles do lots of contractions, they can actually get irritated and more shortened!
So, what’s the place for biofeedback?
First, it is important to realize that the term “biofeedback” is not exclusive to EMG. Really, biofeedback can be any cueing to encourage a patient to perform an exercise accurately. Sara and Amy give a few great examples: a finger in the vagina to encourage and cue the patient to relax and lengthen their muscles. A clinician teaching a patient the optimal way to harness the diaphragm with breathing. All biofeedback. And what about SEMG? It can offer some help for some patients to learn to relax and let go of their muscles. However, it can also be a little tricky because women with shortened muscles may appear “normal” on SEMG. Why? It’s complicated, but in summary, SEMG reads electrical activity… so, when a muscle is held at a shortened position for a long period of time, the body will adjust to this position as the new normal. Thus, this can “trick” a patient or clinician (especially if SEMG is done to replace an internal examination) into thinking the muscles are relaxed and functioning well, when they are actually shortened.
In summary, Glazer was a pioneer who really helped us in the process of better understanding Vulvodynia. But as all treatments and understandings do, we have evolved and changed to better understand what the most effective treatment techniques are for women experiencing Vulvodynia. Biofeedback should be a part of any treatment program… but SEMG biofeedback will have some utility for specific populations and limited utility for others.
I would encourage you to read Sara and Amy’s commentary yourself! You can find it here. If you are a physical therapist treating this population, you have the opportunity to learn from Sara in person! She teaches via Alcove Education, and has an excellent course: Vestibulodynia: An Orthopedic and Pelvic Floor Approach. My clinic is fortunate to host this course in just a few weeks! (Our course is sold out… but you can find upcoming courses here).