With Mother’s Day around the corner, we’ve been wanting to give back and help out the mothers in our community (around the country…around the world!) who are struggling in this interesting new normal. Figuring out managing caring for children, homeschooling, work/family obligations, all while trying to keep their families safe, sane, engaged. Let’s be honest, being a mom is the hardest, but most rewarding job ever!
To celebrate our mamas everywhere, we have a few discounted specials to roll out to you!
50% off first Virtual Pelvic Floor Consultation
First, we are offering50% off a virtual pelvic health consultation with one of our incredible pelvic floor specialists. Honestly, we’ve never discounted our services before, but I just felt like this was the right thing to do. So, for $97 you (or the mama you gift this to!) can receive a 55-minute virtual consultation. If you live in Georgia, this will be a pelvic floor physical therapy evaluation. If you don’t, our license won’t let us provide you with physical therapy, but we can still offer you a virtual coaching consultation. So, if you’re struggling with any pelvic health problem– constipation? pain with sex? bladder leaks?– or if you need help recovering after children, getting back to exercise, or preventing problems in the future– this deal is perfect for you! Don’t miss out on this opportunity!!
20% Off Online Classes
Along with this, we are offering 20% off our on-demand classes via the Southern Pelvic Health x The Vagina Whisperer partnership! Each of these classes is 90-minutes and covers SO much information, with great bonuses included! Classes are normally $39 each, so this is a nice discount to get some solid information!! (Gift idea: Consider a birth package for that pregnant mama in your life! Combine our birth prep class with a posptartum recovery class so that new mom has all she needs to rock her birth and after!) Be sure to use promo code MOM20 at checkout!
These specials are only available through Monday May 11, so don’t delay!
If you would have told me two weeks ago that I would have closed the doors to my clinic, Southern Pelvic Health, a week later, and shifted my practice to a virtual one, I would not have believed you. Maybe I was naive (yes, I probably was), but this change came quick to me. It almost happened overnight. And, here we are. I am moving into my second week of working with my patients online. While for many, that seems incredibly scary, I actually think that shifting to an online platform for a while is going to do a lot of good.
Last week, I worked with a few other colleagues to host a webinar on bringing pelvic health online– basically, how do pelvic floor PTs treat most effectively without actually touching their patients? It was a quick production–one built out of necessity–and it sold out in 24 hours because rehab professionals everywhere are trying to figure out how we can still be there for our patients and help them get better during this time. (For my colleagues out there, if you missed it, it’s still available as an on-demand purchase!) I brought together 5 experts from various corners of the country and the world, and we spoke for nearly 2 hours about how we assess the pelvic floor, evaluate patients, and actually help patients get better in a virtual setting. It was full of creative ideas, and also challenged some of the current practice patterns. As you know, I work hard to always question my own practice–learn more–do better– and I’m excited to see what this next period of time does for me as I learn to better and more effectively treat my patients, to be creative with self-care treatments and home strategies, and to use movement to help patients move when my hands are unable to. I will share what I learn with you here, of course.
Pelvic PTs are not the only professionals taking their skills online! Last week, my daughter and I joined a “Frozen Sing-A-long” through a local princess parties company. I have been thrilled to see some incredible resources for people with pelvic floor dysfunction hop online, and I am excited to share some of those with you today!
So, what can you join virtually this week?
Yoga for Pelvic Health
My dear friend and colleague, Patty Schmidt with PLS Yoga, is incredible and specializes in therapeutic yoga for pelvic floor dysfunction. She is bringing several awesome classes online! AND, they are cheap– $15 per class (which honestly, is a HUGE value for the expertise she brings!) So, I do hope you’ll join in:
Gentle Yoga (Via Vista Yoga)– this really could be great for anyone with persistent pain, I think!: Tuesday, March 24th at 12p.m., Thursday, March 26th at 10 a.m.
Patty also is teaching private sessions virtually at $30 for a 30-minute session. This is a steal, believe me!
I also need to share with you all of the FREE yoga resources through another friend and colleague, Shelly Prosko. Shelly has this incredible library of Yoga options for pelvic health, all available right here.
I hope you are able to partake of these awesome resources. Remember, we are in this together my friends! I’ll leave you with a quote from a much-loved movie in my house, Frozen II, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” Let’s all try to do the next right thing amidst this craziness!
Wow- what a few weeks it has been! I don’t know about you, but it has felt completely surreal to me. My practice, Southern Pelvic Health, which has been steadily growing and serving people around Atlanta was suddenly put on hold, and many of my patients shifted to working with me in a virtual setting. Now, I know you may be thinking– how can you help people without actually touching them? I hope to expand on this in some future posts, because, honestly, I believe this is where we are going to be for a while (SO, WASH YOUR HANDS, and SOCIALLY DISTANCE, my friends!). But, this is heavy on the minds of pelvic PTs across the country. Thinking– how can we, as a profession, still help the people who need it? Make a difference in their lives? Help people control their bowels & bladder, have better and pain-free sex, live their lives without pelvic pain?
So, this post is for all of you PTs out there asking yourselves that! Earlier this week, I partnered together with some of the smartest, most innovative PTs I know– who are leaders in our field, and ALREADY practicing pelvic health in a virtual setting– and we are hosting a webinar to teach all of you how to do just that! So, join us tomorrow for this important event:
TAKING PELVIC HEALTH ONLINE!
LIVE Webinar Event: FRIDAY 3/20 AT 9PM EST
We are bringing an expert panel together to discuss how best to screen, examine, and treat patients with pelvic floor diagnoses—without actually being able to touch our patients! These experts have been ALREADY DOING THIS, with success, and we are so pleased to bring this to all of you!
Join me, Jessica Reale, PT, DPT, WCS, as I lead a discussion with Antony Lo of the Physio Detective and the Women’s Health Podcast, Sara Reardon- the Vagina Whisperer, Juan Michelle Martin- founder of the Zero to Telehealth Program, Julie Granger- virtual health and biz coach, and Susie Gronski- author and educator. We will discuss:
✅ How to get your ideal clients to see the value in virtual Pelvic PT care and convert in-person clients to virtual clients
✅ How to evaluate, screen, and provide pelvic health treatments without being able to physically touch or be present with clients.
✅ How to effectively help your virtual clients without manual therapy or internal examinations
✅ How to market your services in a growing and busy online market and build a practice that is sustainable in the long run.
Plus, Antony Lo has graciously allowed all participants to receive a BONUS link to a recorded virtual session of one of his clients with diastasis recti!
JOIN US FRIDAY 3/20 at 9p.m. EST! Registration is $49.
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?
I am 2 weeks in to my new practice, and absolutely loving it! I was fortunate this past week to be a guest on the podcast series, Real Talk with the Pelvic Docs. Jenny LaCross has been a friend for a few years (we connected when she was in her residency program), and she’s doing amazing things for the pelvic health community! It was such a pleasure to talk with her about my experiences with pregnancy, childbirth and my own postpartum recovery. You’ll also hear more about my journey to private practice and my hopes and dreams for the future! I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I enjoyed recording it!
Did you know that last week was international breastfeeding week? I know this event and really, even discussions about breastfeeding can lead to lots of thoughts amongst mamas. Pride, having accomplished something challenging. Sadness, if your breastfeeding journey did not necessarily go as planned. Fear, as to whether your baby is actually getting enough milk and growing the way she should. Joy. Guilt. Happiness. Anger. The list goes on.
I think it’s important that while we recognize that breastfeeding has incredible benefits, we also recognize what is most important– a fed and growing baby and a healthy happy momma. There is so much that goes into the decision a parent makes about how to feed their baby, and it’s important that we help all feel supported and loved– not judged and put down. (Again, let’s build each other up, parents!!)
Musculoskeletal pain postpartum is fairly common. A 2019 study of 400 breastfeeding women found that around 37% experienced neck pain and 22% experienced low back pain. Another 2015 study looked at the experiences of 229 individuals after giving birth. Around 50% experienced back pain and 25% had an onset of back pain at 2 or more weeks postpartum. (This later onset makes a lot of sense to me based on the big changes in movement and positioning that often happen after having babies.)
So, if you are having back pain after childbirth, you’re in good company. I’ll add here that while this is indeed common, it if not normal. This is good news, because it means that we actually have strategies to help this improve.
What can a nursing mama do to help these aches and pains?
1. Be sure you are using good mechanics when you feed your little one. My daughter takes 20-30 min to feed and ate every 2-3 hours after birth (and now, at 9 weeks old, still eats every 2 hours or so during the day–but sleeps more at night!! Yay!). That means that she feeds anywhere from 160-360 minutes each day. That is a long time to be in the same position. So, to minimize aches and pains, aim to sit with support at your back. If possible, find a comfortable place to feed your baby where your body can relax and you aren’t having to work to stay in a good position for feeding. Also, be sure you bring your baby to your breast not your breast to your baby. If you are having to bring your breast to your baby, you’ll inevitably slump down and holding that position for 20-30 minutes makes my back hurt just thinking about it.
These recommendations also hold true for my pumping and bottle feeding mamas. Pumping also leaves you in one position (unless you have one of the new styles of pumps like the Elvie– more to come later on that!!) for a long period of time, so being sure you have a comfortable place to pump and feed your baby is key!
2. Use pillows and cushions to provide support. Remember, 360 minutes in one position each day can be touch. Try using pillows like the boppy, brest friend, or others that support the baby being lifted to the breast. I actually find for my daughter that I like the boppy more when I sit in my glider or recliner, but I prefer the brest friend when I’m sitting in bed (used with a pillow under it for positioning). Right after birth, depending on where I was sitting, I sometimes just preferred using a few pillows, or using a football hold position to nurse. So, try a few options and see what helps you get into the most optimal position.
If you are bottle feeding, using pillows and supports like this can still be helpful to keep you in an ergonomic position and support your baby during your feed.
3. Change it up. When it comes to posture, the current thought is along the lines that there is not one perfect posture per se, but rather variability in posture and movement seems to be important. So, changing up your position to feed can sometimes help. This can mean feeding in a wrap or a carrier (I have yet to master that!), or nursing while lying down (my most favorite!). Sometimes mixing it up like this can make a big difference.
4. Take movement breaks between feeds. This goes along with Tip #3. Movement breaks like this feel amazing to me after nursing my little Mary. The following movement sequence is meant to take you out of the position you’re in to feed, and help restore some variability. Doing a short movement series between feeds like this can really help improve these aches and pains.
Cat-cow: I love this exercise because it allows your spine to move well into flexion and extension. This can feel great when you have been feeding for so long or holding your baby in a slightly flexed position. Pairing this with breathing can be fantastic as well (and helps to get your deep core–including your pelvic floor–involved). To do this, inhale while your back extends and your head comes up. Exhale while you arch your back, tucking your pelvis and allowing your head to drop down.
Wall Angels: This is another of my favorites. This exercise stabilizes your low back while encouraging movement at your shoulders and mid-back. It feels AMAZING if you have been sitting for a while at a computer…or in this case…sitting for a while and feeding a little one!
Reach and Roll: This exercise is a good one to get some movement in your shoulders and thoracic spine. Keep your pelvis “stacked” and your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees to encourage movement through your upper back.
Child’s Pose: This is a nice position to open your hips, lengthen your spine and extend your shoulders. As a bonus, a wide-kneed child’s pose also encourages lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles, so this is a favorite exercise of mine for individuals with pelvic floor overactivity or pelvic pain. **If you are fairly early postpartum, you may not want to lengthen your pelvic floor this way. So, in your case, consider keeping your knees together rather than wide.
5. If pain persists, seek help! This could mean seeing a lactation consultant if you are needing help positioning your baby. It could also mean seeking an evaluation with a physical therapist who has experience working with people postpartum (usually, this primarily includes pelvic health PTs). While back pain can be very aggravating, it is often very treatable. We usually see good results for people experiencing this, very quickly.
I hope this helps some of my fellow nursing mamas! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out!
6 weeks ago, we welcomed our second daughter into the world. Mary Lynn was 6 lbs 10 oz of squishy, adorable, babyness. And she came into the world via a Caesarean birth. And it was amazing. And hard. But good.
C-sections come with challenges, just like vaginal births do, and for me, these challenges included a significant blood loss that led to me fainting on the second day, a super low blood pressure due to a response to the epidural that contributed to the fainting but also meant going off of my epidural pain meds really early, and nerve pain that lasted for about a month after Mary was born. (We’ll y’all more about that another time.)
Since I am living the early postpartum life, I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts on my own rehabilitation journey (since, in many ways, each of my births has been a mini-case study for myself!).
So, let’s talk Cesarean rehab in the first 6 weeks!
Moving well after major abdominal surgery
I love when people imply that birthing via Cesarean section is somehow “the easy way out” compared to birthing via the vagina. Hello people, this is major abdominal surgery! All mommas get birthing badges– let’s support each other in our journeys, right?!
Initially after a Cesarean, movement alone can be challenging. Standing up from a chair. Rolling over in bed. Lying down in bed. But the good news is that with some easy tips, this movement can become much easier. First, as you are moving, bending, standing, etc. remember to “blow before you go.” This easy to remember phrase comes from my friend and colleague, Julie Wiebe. This means, begin to exhale before you initiate a movement. Breathing like this with movement helps to control pressures within the abdomen and pelvis, so it can significantly help you in your movement after having your baby- both in terms of ease but also in protecting your pelvis and abdomen.
When standing up from a chair, remember, nose over toes. Scoot to the edge of the chair first. As you go to stand, lean forward first. This puts your body weight over your legs and helps take the burden away from your core.
When you lie down or get up from lying down, channel your inner log. So, when you lie down, first sit on the edge of the bed. Slowly lift your legs onto the bed, then lower the rest of the body down, using your arms for support. If you need to roll over, bend your knees, then roll your body as a unit- like a log. Reverse these steps for getting up out of bed.
Abdominal Binders and Compression Underwear? It depends. It may be worth considering using an abdominal binder for the first few weeks after your birth, progressing to wearing compression underwear or shorts(ie Spanx, SRS recovery shorts, Core shorts). These types of garments provide support to the abdomen and can be incredibly helpful for moving and walking around after your surgery. The flip side with compressing the abdomen is that it can impact how well you can move your ribcage and can influence pressure mechanics within the pelvis. So, if you are already struggling with pelvic organ prolapse or urinary leakage, or if you pushed for a period of time before having a Caesarean birth, it may be worth talking with a pelvic floor PT prior to utilizing this during your recovery. Generally, the compression underwear/shorts provide more support to the pelvic floor and abdomen, so they may be a little better with pressure modulation than the binder. For me personally, the binder and compression undies were amazing! They took away my nerve pain, and helped me move much better. I chose to wear these sporadically during the day (a bit on, a bit off), and practiced breathing well with my diaphragm during the times the binder was off.
Handling your incision
Initially, your main focus here is keeping your incision clean, and monitoring it to make sure it is healing well with no signs of infection. Around 6 weeks, if you are cleared by your physician, you can begin to gently mobilize the tissue around the scar and aim to desensitize the scar. I usually start above and below the scar, before working on the scar itself. You can perform gentle massage to the tissue above and below the scar and gently stretch the skin in all directions above and below the scar. You can also gently desensitize the scar by touching it with your fingers or a wet cloth, and gently rubbing across the scar in all directions. We can mobilize this scar tissue further, but we are going to talk about this in a future post as this post is focusing on the early period of healing.
At this time, you can also begin applying silicone gel or silicone strips to help soften your scar and prevent hypertrophic or keloid scars. Silicone is considered a gold-standard treatment for the prevention or treatment of hypertrophic scars. While most of the research regarding silicone is of poor quality with significant bias, evidence does tend to suggest a positive benefit. My first Caesarean did lead to a hypertrophic scar, so I began applying silicone gel to my scar once cleared by my OB to do so, around 4 weeks after Mary’s birth. I’ll report back on the difference between this new scar and the old one (See, mini case study!).
**I also have to note here that my colleague, Kathe Wallace, has a fantastic book that details some recommendations for scar tissue management after Caesarean. Kathe also offers a free abdominal scar massage guide at her website, which is a fantastic resource!
Exercise in the Early Postpartum Period
If I could give you one piece of advice on this early postpartum period, it would be to relax. Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to recover and heal. I find that so many people want to jump into too much, way too soon, and unfortunately, this can be more harmful than it is helpful. Remember, you just did something incredible. You just had major surgery. You deserve to rest.
When we think about exercise during this initial period of healing, we are going to start very gently. Here are a few things you can get started on:
Walking: I’m not talking about going and walking several miles. During the first few weeks, it’s best to really rest, and give your body time to heal. Getting up, walking around the house as you feel comfortable can be very beneficial. As you continue to heal, during the next few weeks, you can increase your walking. So, this may include some outings and short periods of walking between 2-4 weeks. Between 4-6 weeks, you can generally consider a leisurely walk in your neighborhood or a longer outing. The key here is to listen to your body. Rest when you need to, but gradually move to increase your endurance. After you see your OB for a postpartum visit around 4-6 weeks, and you are cleaned to do so, you can continue to gradually increase your walking as you are feeling comfortable. Are you antsy to jump back into running? Zumba? Bootcamp? Pilates? Don’t. We’ll get there. But let’s rest right now.
Breathing: You all know I am fairly obsessed with the diaphragm. 4 years after this post was written, I still think it’s one of the coolest muscles in the body. The diaphragm works in coordination with the pelvic floor muscles, deep abdominal muscles and deep low back muscles to provide support to the abdominal organs, modulate pressure in the thorax and pelvis, and provide dynamic stability to our spine and pelvis. Slow breathing, aiming to expand your ribcage and relax your abdomen as you inhale, then slowly exhaling your air can be incredibly beneficial to re-establishing these normal functional relationships.
Gentle Pelvic Floor Muscle Activation & Relaxation: First, my biggest recommendation would be to SEE A PELVIC PT before and during your pregnancy so you really know your current function and can have an individualized plan to get the most out of your muscles and your body. I encourage people to discuss their delivery with their OB, and ask about beginning gentle pelvic floor and abdominal exercises. The timeline for starting this will depend on the specifics of your delivery, and we want to be smart when activating muscles that have been cut. When your provider is on-board with you starting, I like to pair gentle pelvic floor and abdominal wall activation with breathing. This looks like this:
Inhale, expanding your ribcage, relaxing your abdomen and your pelvic floor muscles.
Exhale and gently draw in your pelvic floor muscles, allowing your lower abdominal muscles to also gently draw in. Aim for a “moderate” effort to allow activation of the muscles but not overactivate them.
Then, relax your muscles again as you inhale, repeating this cycle.
Aim to do this for a minute or two, twice each day.
Stay tuned as we continue this journey over the next few weeks and months! What have been your challenges after childbirth? For my fellow health care professionals, what else do you like people to know immediately after a caesarean birth?
About 2.5 years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to join Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute as a Faculty instructor for the Pelvic Health Series. This was an absolute dream come true for me, as I completely love teaching and had always dreamed of teaching continuing education in pelvic health. (Seriously… as a new grad, I remember asking an instructor at a course what advice they had for someday becoming an instructor. Funny story is that I now co-teach with that very instructor!). Teaching in pelvic health has been such a incredible blessing for me– not only do I get to travel across the country and help other clinicians learn to treat my most favorite population of patients, but I also get the opportunity to co-teach with inspiring and incredible experts in pelvic physical therapy.
This past September, I had the opportunity to teach with Sara Reardon, PT, DPT, WCS, BCB-PMD, who is not only an incredible clinician, but is also hilarious, down-to-earth, and passionate about women’s health. One night at dinner, Sara, Darla Cathcart, and I had a long conversation about pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum period, and becoming moms. At one point, I think all of us had tears in our eyes, as we shared our own journeys, challenges we/our family/our patients have had, and our hopes for making everything better. After that chat, I just knew I needed to interview Sara here so all of you have the opportunity to learn from her and feel her passion! I hope you enjoy this interview! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below!
If you would like to see Sara’s work, check her out at www.thevagwhisperer.com. Here, you will find information about seeing Sara in-person, her online therapy options, mentoring options, and her instagram/blog presence!
Happy New Year!
If you want to see all of our expert videos in one place, be sure to check out my youtube channel! This video as well as the others can be found here!
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!
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.