As physical therapists, are our hands are amazing gifts and phenomenal diagnostic tools that we can use to assess restrictions, tender points, swelling, muscle guarding, atrophy, nerve irritation and skeletal malalignment. We also use our hands to treat out these problems, provide feedback to the muscles, and facilitate the activation of certain muscle groups. There have been a great number of manual techniques that have evolved over the course of physical therapy’s history. Let’s go over a few.
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.
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.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is common for many women and includes symptoms that can affect all aspects of everyday life and activities. Pelvic floor muscle (PFM) training is vital for treating different types of pelvic floor dysfunction. Two common problems are uterine prolapse and urinary incontinence both of which stem from muscle weakness. Without the ability to control PFM, pelvic floor training cannot be done successfully. Being able to control PFM is vital for a well functioning pelvic floor. Through vaginal palpation exams and the use of biofeedback the tightening, lifting, and squeezing actions of these muscles can be determined. In addition, abdominal muscle training has been shown to improve pelvic floor muscle function. By increasing abdominal muscle strength and control, a person may have an easier time activating the pelvic floor muscles in sync with the abdominal muscles. Many physiotherapists are specially trained to address the muscles weaknesses associated with pelvic floor dysfunction and through intervention can effectively treat this.
The muscles of the pelvic floor must work together and in coordination to perform specific tasks. The pelvic floor has to contract, elongate and relax in very precise ways to perform basic functions like urination, defecation, support the pelvis and organs, and sexual function and pleasure. If your pelvic floor muscles and/or nerves fail to do what they are supposed to do at the right time, problems like painful sex, erectile dysfunction, constipation, and incontinence can occur.
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.
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.
Pelvic Floor Prolapse: The pelvic floor consists of the muscles and organs of the pelvis, such as the rectum, vagina, bladder. Stretching of the pelvic floor may occur with aging, collagen disorders or after childbirth. When the pelvic floor is stretched, the rectum, vagina, or bladder may protrude through the rectum or vagina, causing a bulge, which can be felt. In addition to a rectocele, patients may have rectal prolapse, a cystocele (prolapse of the bladder) or protrusion of the small bowel. Symptoms generally include difficulty in emptying during urination or defecation, incontinence or pressure in the pelvis.
Electromyography (EMG)/ Pudendal Nerve Motor Latency Testing: These are tests that check to determine how the nerves of the pelvic floor are working. Pudendal nerve motor latency tests evaluate just the pudendal nerve, while EMG is a more complex testing of several nerves in the anal sphincter and pelvic floor. These tests may require needles and small doses of electricity.
Biofeedback is now the most common treatment for pelvic floor dysfunction. It is usually done with the help of a physical therapist and it improves the condition for 75% of patients, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It is non-invasive, and after working with a physical therapist, you may be able to use a home unit to continue with this therapy.
Your pelvic floor is the group of muscles and ligaments in your pelvic region. The pelvic floor acts like a sling to support the organs in your pelvis — including the bladder, rectum, and uterus or prostate. Contracting and relaxing these muscles allows you to control your bowel movements, urination, and, for women particularly, sexual intercourse.
Biofeedback is a modality that allows you to learn how to better control your muscles for optimal function. Biofeedback shows you what your muscles are doing in-real time. It is helpful to teach patients to lengthen and relax the pelvic floor for issues like general pelvic pain, painful sexual activity and constipation or to contract the pelvic floor in order to prevent leakage with activities like coughing, laughing, lifting, running or moving heavy objects. However, biofeedback does not demonstrate shortened muscles and tissues; therefore, in certain cases the biofeedback may seem to be within normal limits but yet the patient has 10/10 pain. In these incidences, manual palpation is more appropriate to identify restricted and shortened tissues and muscles, and myofascial trigger points.
By definition, postpartum pelvic floor dysfunction only affects women who have given birth, though pregnancy rather than birth or birth method is thought to be the cause. A study of 184 first-time mothers who delivered by Caesarean section and 100 who delivered vaginally found that there was no significant difference in the prevalence of symptoms 10 months following delivery, suggesting that pregnancy is the cause of incontinence for many women irrespective of their mode of delivery. The study also suggested that the changes which occur to the properties of collagen and other connective tissues during pregnancy may affect pelvic floor function.
“I would recommend that people call the facility and maybe schedule the first appointment and see how you feel about it. I also think patient support groups tend to have closed Facebook groups and they can recommend people in certain geographical areas. I know people call [our practice] a lot and we try and get them paired up with somebody we trust in their area,” Prendergast says.