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.
Surface electrodes (self-adhesive pads placed on your skin) can test your pelvic muscle control. This might be an option if you don’t want an internal exam. The electrodes are placed on the perineum (the area between the vagina and rectum in women, and between the testicles and rectum in men) or on the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of your spine). This test is not painful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Biofeedback uses electrodes placed on your body (on the perineum and/or the area around the anus) or probes inserted in the vagina or rectum to sense the degree of tenseness in your pelvic floor muscles. Results displayed on a computer or other device provide cues to help you learn to relax those muscles. Usually, patients feel relief after six to eight weeks of therapy. You may be able to buy or rent a unit to use at home.
When mechanical, anatomic, and disease- and diet-related causes of constipation have been ruled out, clinical suspicion should be raised to the possibility that PFD is causing or contributing to constipation. A focused history and digital examination are key components in diagnosing PFD. The diagnosis can be confirmed by anorectal manometry with balloon expulsion and, in some cases, traditional proctography or dynamic magnetic resonance imaging defecography to visualize pathologic pelvic floor motion, sphincter anatomy and greater detail of surrounding structures.
Every since my hysterectomy 4 years ago I have chronic pain. I’m now 46 years old and have tried everything. They say my muscle tone is good, as I do Kegals daily and my estrogen and testosterone are low but could be worse. The doctor says I have scar tissue on the vault that pushing on nerve endings. I can’t take gabapintin nor lyrica as they are too strong and I hate how it feels. I’ve had pelvic PT and use those skills. They now want to give me steroid shots a the top of the vault. Actually this wk but I’m about to chicken out. It seems everything tried makes it more agitated. Im at my wits end.
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.
Thank you Dr. Northrup for sharing great information about pelvic floor dysfunction. I am a physical therapist and board-certified women’s clinical specialist. I’ve been practicing pelvic physical therapy since 1999. Over the years I have realized that we as women to not have basic information to take care of our bodies and never discuss the ‘secret’ pelvic area. I have such a passion for bringing this information forward that I wrote a book Pelvic Zone Coach, Every Wonan’s Guide To Pelvic Health and Sexual Vitality (available on Amazon).
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.