It is essential that we, as pelvic floor physical therapists, also include other assessments when we are examining our patients for the very first time. We employ the tried and true physical therapy exam practices to determine if there is an underlying condition elsewhere in your body, such as a strength deficit or alignment issue that could be affecting your pelvic floor. It’s wild to think of it, but something as seemingly unrelated as a flat foot or a hip injury can be enough to set off pelvic and abdominal pain!
Building and maintaining a strong pelvic floor is crucial for women of all ages. The pelvic floor is a group of muscles at the bottom of your pelvis that supports the womb, bladder, and bowels. So if these muscles become weak—whether it's due to childbirth, pregnancy, aging, or weight gain—it may be challenging to control your bladder and bowel activity. This is referred to as incontinence, a condition that affects nearly 25 million Americans, 75% to 80% of which are women.
Scars are almost always a fact of life. From surgeries, to accidents, to conditions like endometriosis, or certain STI’s, almost everybody has one. What doesn’t have to be a fact of life are the muscle, nerve and skin restrictions and overactivity that they can cause. By releasing scar tissue in physical therapy, it has been shown that the surrounding restrictions also decrease their resistance and adherence to the deeper tissues and surrounding organs.
Look in a mirror if lying down doesn't work. If you are a guy, the lying on your back method for locating your pelvic floor muscles may not work. An alternative is for you to stand in front of a mirror naked. Look at your body as you attempt to flex your pelvic floor muscles. If you are contracting the muscles correctly, you should be able to see your penis and scrotum lift up. When you relax your pelvic floor, you should see these parts drift back down.[4]
During the internal exam, your physical therapist will place a gloved finger into your vagina or rectum to assess the tone, strength, and irritability of your pelvic floor muscles and tissues. Internal exams and internal treatment are invaluable tools that are taught to pelvic floor physical therapists. It can tell us if there are trigger points (painful spots, with a referral pattern or local); muscle/tissue shortening; nerve irritation and/or bony malalignment that could be causing your pain directly or inhibiting the full function of your pelvic floor muscles. We can also determine if your pelvic floor has good coordination during the exam. A pelvic floor without good coordination, may not open and close appropriately for activities such as going to the bathroom, supporting our pelvis and trunk, sexual activity, and keeping us continent.
Scars are almost always a fact of life. From surgeries, to accidents, to conditions like endometriosis, or certain STI’s, almost everybody has one. What doesn’t have to be a fact of life are the muscle, nerve and skin restrictions and overactivity that they can cause. By releasing scar tissue in physical therapy, it has been shown that the surrounding restrictions also decrease their resistance and adherence to the deeper tissues and surrounding organs.
But while “vaginal massage” is a general, nonspecific term, it may be used to treat the musculoskeletal system of the pelvic floor, notes Dr. Huang. Sometimes this may be internally through the vagina or anus, though the target isn’t the vagina itself, but rather the muscles. “Some muscles, like hip rotator and pelvic floor muscles, are better accessed internally,” she says. (Imbalances in other muscles like those found in the abdominal wall or hip girdle are best treated from the outside.)
Issues with the pelvic floor can arise from a multitude of reasons. Infections, previous surgeries, childbirth, postural and lifting problems, and trips and falls can all bring on pelvic floor dysfunction. Pelvic floor pain can persist well after the cause of it has been removed. So it is entirely possible to feel the effects of an old infection, surgery or injury, days to years after they occur. Anyone who has had long standing abdomino-pelvic pain, or pain that they can’t seem to get rid of after seeking the help of medical doctors or other healthcare providers is a good candidate for a pelvic floor physical therapy evaluation and possible curative treatment.
People with trigger points in their pelvic floor and surrounding areas can experience pain in the rectum, anus, coccyx, sacrum, abdomen, groin and back and can cause bladder, bowel, and sexual dysfunction. When physical therapists find a trigger point they work to eliminate it and lengthen it through a myriad of techniques. Recent literature has found that trigger point release alone can achieve an 83% reduction in symptoms.
If that’s part of your treatment protocol as determined by your therapist, she may use one finger to stretch and mobilize the pelvic floor muscles, explains Tadros. While it may seem like some patients would balk at this, “I find that patients are so desperate for help, they’re more than okay with having it done. We don’t use a speculum or stirrups. This isn’t invasive, it’s designed to keep someone as comfortable as possible,” she adds.
Home exercise programs are essential for each patient. In the case of weakness, a patient will require more pelvic floor, core and functional strengthening and stability exercises. For overactive and pain conditions, the HEP typically consists of relaxation techniques, self-massages (both external and internal), gentle stretching, cardiovascular fitness as tolerated, and eventually pain-free core stability exercises. Both require postural and behavioral modifications and self-care strategies. For more information and detail, check out the book: Heal Pelvic Pain, by Amy Stein or her DVD: Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain here.
With her finger inside me, Christensen mentioned that the three superficial pelvic floor muscles on each side were very tight and tensed when she touched them. I was too tight and in pain for her to check the deepest muscle (the obturator internus). Finally, she checked to see if I could do a Kegel or relax the muscles, and I was unable to do either.
May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month (#PelvicPainAware), supported by the International Pelvic Pain Society (www.pelvicpain.org). As physical therapists who specialize in abdomino-pelvic pain disorders, one of the toughest parts of the job is meeting men and women who have suffered with pelvic pain for years, only to be told by their doctors/healthcare providers that there is no help for them. It is not uncommon to meet a patient who has suffered for 5- 10 years without help before finding us. Musculoskeletal causes of abdomino-pelvic pain are treatable conditions and often times we can start to improve a patient’s symptoms within just a few visits. We are promoting Pelvic Pain Awareness Month because it is our mission to ensure that people know that help exists so they can start living richer and fuller lives. In honor of Pelvic Pain Awareness Month we want to take some time to explain what we do and how it can help with the symptoms of pelvic pain. Please read on to see how we can help you with your pain.
Pelvic floor physical therapists specialize in the muscles, nerves and connective tissues that live between your legs, also known as the pelvic floor. They gain their expertise through a series of post-graduate continuing education classes, certifications, and training. Their training allows them to perform both internal and external pelvic exams, and broadens their knowledge of conditions which affect the pelvic floor. Sometimes, people who specialize in modalities like biofeedback or dilator therapy, advertise themselves as pelvic floor therapists, but don’t have any hands on experience treating the sensitive and often reactive muscles of the pelvic floor. If you are seeking pelvic floor physical therapy, it is important to enquire about the experience and level of training your potential physical therapist has had in this specialty.
Reduces the chances of pelvic organ prolapse. Pelvic organ prolapse is a health condition in which the pelvic floor muscles are so weak that they can’t support the pelvic organs (bladder, cervix, uterus, and rectum). During a pelvic organ prolapse, one or more of the pelvic organs falls down into the vagina, creating a bulge. Since pelvic floor exercises strengthen the pelvic muscles, they can help prevent the muscles from becoming too weak and allowing prolapse.
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