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.
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.
May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month (#PelvicPainAware), supported by the International Pelvic Pain Society (www.pelvicpain.org). As physical therapists who specialize in abdomino-pelvic pain disorders, one of the toughest parts of the job is meeting men and women who have suffered with pelvic pain for years, only to be told by their doctors/healthcare providers that there is no help for them. It is not uncommon to meet a patient who has suffered for 5- 10 years without help before finding us. Musculoskeletal causes of abdomino-pelvic pain are treatable conditions and often times we can start to improve a patient’s symptoms within just a few visits. We are promoting Pelvic Pain Awareness Month because it is our mission to ensure that people know that help exists so they can start living richer and fuller lives. In honor of Pelvic Pain Awareness Month we want to take some time to explain what we do and how it can help with the symptoms of pelvic pain. Please read on to see how we can help you with your pain.
If you think of the pelvis as being the home to organs like the bladder, uterus (or prostate in men) and rectum, the pelvic floor muscles are the home’s foundation. These muscles act as the support structure keeping everything in place within your body. Your pelvic floor muscles add support to several of your organs by wrapping around your pelvic bone. Some of these muscles add more stability by forming a sling around the rectum.
^ Bernard, Stéphanie; Ouellet, Marie-Pier; Moffet, Hélène; Roy, Jean-Sébastien; Dumoulin, Chantale (April 2016). "Effects of radiation therapy on the structure and function of the pelvic floor muscles of patients with cancer in the pelvic area: a systematic review". Journal of Cancer Survivorship. 10 (2): 351–362. doi:10.1007/s11764-015-0481-8. hdl:1866/16374. ISSN 1932-2259. PMID 26314412. S2CID 13563337.
Mechanistically, the causes of pelvic floor dysfunction are two-fold: widening of the pelvic floor hiatus and descent of pelvic floor below the pubococcygeal line, with specific organ prolapse graded relative to the hiatus. Associations include obesity, menopause, pregnancy and childbirth. Some women may be more likely to developing pelvic floor dysfunction because of an inherited deficiency in their collagen type. Some women may have congenitally weak connective tissue and fascia and are therefore at risk of stress urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
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.
Obstructed Defecation: Obstructed defecation is difficulty getting bowel movements out of the body. Although the stool reaches the rectum, or bottom of the colon, the patient has difficulty emptying. This often makes patients feel that they need to go the bathroom more often, or that they cannot empty completely, as if stool remains in their rectum. Obstructed defecation may be caused by pelvic floor prolapse (discussed below), pain symptoms or muscles not functioning normally.
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.
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.
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.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is very different than pelvic organ prolapse. Pelvic organ prolapse happens when the muscles holding a woman’s pelvic organs (uterus, rectum and bladder) in place loosen and become too stretched out. Pelvic organ prolapse can cause the organs to protrude (stick out) of the vagina or rectum and may require women to push them back inside.
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.
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!