Pelvic floor dysfunction can be diagnosed by history and physical exam, though it is more accurately graded by imaging. Historically, fluoroscopy with defecography and cystography were used, though modern imaging allows the usage of MRI to complement and sometimes replace fluoroscopic assessment of the disorder, allowing for less radiation exposure and increased patient comfort, though an enema is required the evening before the procedure. Instead of contrast, ultrasound gel is used during the procedure with MRI. Both methods assess the pelvic floor at rest and maximum strain using coronal and sagittal views. When grading individual organ prolapse, the rectum, bladder and uterus are individually assessed, with prolapse of the rectum referred to as a rectocele, bladder prolapse through the anterior vaginal wall a cystocele, and small bowel an enterocele.
Myofascial release is a more gentle technique that can be useful in cases where a patient is already experiencing a great deal of pain. The therapist will hold gentle pressure at the barrier of the tissue (the point where resistance is felt) for a short period of time, usually less than 2 minutes until the therapist feels the tissue release on its own. The therapist does not force the barrier.
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.
Treatment is based on the cause of the dysfunction and severity of symptoms. Surgical treatment is rarely needed for pelvic floor dysfunction, except for large, symptomatic rectoceles or other pelvic prolapse. In the case of prolapse, surgery may help to restore the normal location of pelvic organs. This may be performed through the abdomen or through the bottom, depending on the specific problem.
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.
What sets pelvic floor physical therapists apart is their in depth understanding of the muscles and surrounding structures of the pelvic floor, beyond what was taught in physical therapy graduate school. What that means for a patient who is seeking the help of a pelvic floor physical therapist, is that his or her pelvic floor issues will be examined and treated comprehensively with both internal and external treatment, provide them with lifestyle modifications to help remove any triggers, and receive specific exercises and treatment to help prevent the reoccurrence of pain once he or she has been successfully treated.
A defecating proctogram is a test where you’re given an enema of a thick liquid that can be seen with an X-ray. Your provider will use a special video X-ray to record the movement of your muscles as you attempt to push the liquid out of the rectum. This will help to show how well you are able to pass a bowel movement or any other causes for pelvic floor dysfunction. This test is not painful.
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.
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.
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.