Pelvic floor dysfunction is an umbrella term for a variety of disorders that occur when pelvic floor muscles and ligaments are impaired. Although this condition predominantly affects females, up to 16% of males suffer as well. Symptoms include pelvic pain, pressure, pain during sex, incontinence, incomplete emptying of feces, and visible organ protrusion. Tissues surrounding the pelvic organs may have increased or decreased sensitivity or irritation resulting in pelvic pain. Underlying causes of pelvic pain are often difficult to determine. The condition affects up to 50% of women who have given birth.
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.
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!
Paradoxical Puborectalis Contraction: The puborectalis muscle is part of the control muscles that control bowel movements. The puborectalis wraps like a sling around the lower rectum. During a bowel movement, the puborectalis is supposed to relax to allow the bowel movement to pass. If the muscle does not relax or contracts during paradoxical contraction, it may feel like you are pushing against a closed door.
Rectocele: A rectocele is a bulge of the front wall of the rectum into the vagina. Normally, the rectum goes straight down to the anus (picture). When a patient with a rectocele strains, the stool may get caught in an abnormal pocket of the rectum which bulges into the vagina. This prevents the patient from emptying the rectum completely. Generally, rectoceles do not produce symptoms. As they grow larger, rectoceles may cause difficulty going to the bathroom, or cause leakage of stool after having a bowel movement. Rectoceles are more common in women who have given birth. Rectoceles are usually caused by thinning of the tissue between the rectum and vagina and weakening of the pelvic floor muscles.
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.