Physical therapists (PTs) are experts in movement and function, which sounds like a pretty broad topic to be an expert in, and it is. After physical therapists graduate PT school (now-a-days at the doctoral level), they find their niche and specialize. You can find PTs working with high-level athletes, children, infants, people who are recovering from injuries, people with neurological conditions and many other types of clients.
Pain can emerge because of lifestyle factors and underlying medical problems. Sitting all day can affect the nerves in your saddle, which may translate into a burning pain in your vulva, explains Rhonda K. Kotarinos, DPT, a specialist in pelvic floor dysfunction in the Chicago area. The discomfort of chronic vaginal infections or holding urine all day long can also lead someone to “walk around with their pelvic floor clinched to their ears. It can make your pelvic floor very angry,” she says.
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.
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.)
Neural mobilization as the name implies, involves the restoration of neural structures back to their normal mobility: to glide and slide. Neural structures that cannot move properly can cause pain that can radiate down an extremity or into the trunk and can give the sensation of burning, zinging, and stabbing. Some orthopedic therapists practice this type of mobilization; common examples include the sciatic nerve in the leg and the ulnar nerve in the arm. Pelvic floor PTs focus on these nerves when they cause issues, but they also pay attention to nerves that innervate the perineum and genital region (bicycle seat area), such as the pudendal, iliohypogastric, obturator, ilioinguinal, genitofemoral and the femoral cutaneous nerves. By allowing these nerves to move freely, symptoms such as vulvovaginal, penile, rectal, clitoral and testicular pain, itching and burning can be greatly improved.
The term “vaginal massage” may not be legit—practitioners don’t like to use it—but the treatment is. In fact, it’s part of a well-rounded therapy regimen for pelvic floor physical therapy. Certified specialists in this field can help women who are dealing with pain during sex—something 75% of women experience at some point in life, according to research.
Biofeedback. This is a technique to help you make sure that you exercise the correct muscles. For this, a physiotherapist or continence advisor inserts a small device into your vagina when you are doing the exercises. When you squeeze the right muscles, the device makes a noise (or some other signal such as a display on a computer screen) to let you know that you are squeezing the correct muscles.
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.
It’s highly unlikely that someone will head into a therapist’s office for a stand-alone “vaginal massage.” Why not? “It’s one small aspect of the whole therapy,” says Laura Y. Huang, MD, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She notes that pelvic floor muscle training, biofeedback, soft tissue release, and education are some of the many pelvic floor physical therapy treatments used to relieve pain or retrain muscles. Learning techniques and strategies to manage the condition at home is also part of treatment.
When some or all of these structures of the pelvic floor are not functioning properly, they can cause a multitude of different symptoms. People who are suffering from bowel, bladder, and or sexual problems, as well as those who are suffering from pain in the pelvis, upper legs, abdomen or buttocks most likely have pelvic floor impairments contributing to their pain.
Myofascial release was developed by John Barnes to evaluate and treat the myo-fascia throughout the body. The myofascial system is the connective tissue that coats our muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and bones, and runs throughout our bodies. Any tightness or dysfunction in the myofascial system can affect the aforementioned structures and result in pain and or movement dysfunction. By treating the fascia directly, therapists can improve their patient’s range of motion, reduce pain, and improve a patient’s structure and movement patterns.
Nicole Davis is a writer based in Madison, WI, a personal trainer, and a group fitness instructor whose goal is to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. When she’s not working out with her husband or chasing around her young daughter, she’s watching crime TV shows or making sourdough bread from scratch. Find her on Instagram for fitness tidbits, #momlife and more.