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.
To assess the degree of dysfunction, three measurements must be taken into account. First, an anatomic landmark known as the pubococcygeal line must be determined, which is a straight line connecting the inferior margin of the pubic symphysis at the midline with the junction of the first and second coccygeal elements on a sagittal image. After this, the location of the puborectalis muscle sling is assessed, and a perpendicular line between the pubococcygeal line and muscle sling is drawn. This provides a measurement of pelvic floor descent, with descent greater than 2 cm being considered mild, and 6 cm being considered severe. Lastly, a line from the pubic symphysis to the puborectalis muscle sling is drawn, which is a measurement of the pelvic floor hiatus. Measurements of greater than 6 cm are considered mild, and greater than 10 cm severe. The degree of organ prolapse is assessed relative to the hiatus. The grading of organ prolapse relative to the hiatus is more strict, with any descent being considered abnormal, and greater than 4 cm being considered severe.
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!
Once patients with pelvic floor constipation have these basic tools, they can begin retraining the pelvic floor muscles with biofeedback. Based on the principle of operant conditioning, biofeedback provides auditory and visual feedback to help retrain the pelvic floor and relax the anal sphincter. Biofeedback training is the treatment of choice for medically refractory pelvic floor constipation, with some studies showing improvement in more than 70 percent of patients. Patients also learn to identify internal sensations associated with relaxation and long-term skills and exercises for use at home.
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.
Although many centers are familiar with retraining techniques to improve pelvic floor dysfunction, few have the multidisciplinary expertise to teach patients with constipation how to appropriately coordinate abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during defecation, and how to use bowel management techniques, along with behavior modification, to relieve symptoms. Because pelvic floor dysfunction can be associated with psychological, sexual or physical abuse and other life stressors, psychological counseling is often included in the evaluation process. Although many centers are familiar with retraining techniques to improve pelvic floor dysfunction, few have the multidisciplinary expertise to teach patients with constipation how to appropriately coordinate abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during defecation, and how to use bowel management techniques, along with behavior modification, to relieve symptoms. Because pelvic floor dysfunction can be associated with psychological, sexual or physical abuse and other life stressors, psychological counseling is often included in the evaluation process. Stephanie Prendergast, a pelvic floor physical therapist who is a co-founder and LA’s clinical director of the Pelvic Health & Rehabilitation Center, says that while information on pelvic floor issues isn’t always easily accessible, doctors can spend some time online looking at medical journals and learning about different disorders so they can better treat their patients.