It’s highly unlikely that someone will head into a therapist’s office for a stand-alone “vaginal massage.” Why not? “It’s one small aspect of the whole therapy,” says Laura Y. Huang, MD, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She notes that pelvic floor muscle training, biofeedback, soft tissue release, and education are some of the many pelvic floor physical therapy treatments used to relieve pain or retrain muscles. Learning techniques and strategies to manage the condition at home is also part of treatment.
The term “vaginal massage” may not be legit—practitioners don’t like to use it—but the treatment is. In fact, it’s part of a well-rounded therapy regimen for pelvic floor physical therapy. Certified specialists in this field can help women who are dealing with pain during sex—something 75% of women experience at some point in life, according to research.
The pelvic floor muscles support various pelvic organs, including the bladder, prostate, rectum, and female reproductive organs. The muscles themselves are also involved in the functioning of the urinary and anal sphincters. When they are functioning normally, you are able to control your bowel and bladder movements by contracting and relaxing these muscles.
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.
Electrical stimulation uses a small probe inserted into the vagina or rectum to stimulate your pelvic floor muscles, helping desensitize nerves and causing muscles to contract and relax. Stimulation through electrodes placed on your body may calm pain and spasms. Different kinds of electrical stimulation devices are available for home use, both for internal stimulation with a probe or for external stimulation, such as a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or similar unit, to ease pain.
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.
There are various procedures used to address prolapse. Cystoceles are treated with a surgical procedure known as a Burch colposuspension, with the goal of suspending the prolapsed urethra so that the urethrovesical junction and proximal urethra are replaced in the pelvic cavity. Uteroceles are treated with hysterectomy and uterosacral suspension. With enteroceles, the prolapsed small bowel is elevated into the pelvis cavity and the rectovaginal fascia is reapproximated. Rectoceles, in which the anterior wall of the rectum protrudes into the posterior wall of the vagina, require posterior colporrhaphy.
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.
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!