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.
Biofeedback is a modality that allows you to learn how to better control your muscles for optimal function. Biofeedback shows you what your muscles are doing in-real time. It is helpful to teach patients to lengthen and relax the pelvic floor for issues like general pelvic pain, painful sexual activity and constipation or to contract the pelvic floor in order to prevent leakage with activities like coughing, laughing, lifting, running or moving heavy objects. However, biofeedback does not demonstrate shortened muscles and tissues; therefore, in certain cases the biofeedback may seem to be within normal limits but yet the patient has 10/10 pain. In these incidences, manual palpation is more appropriate to identify restricted and shortened tissues and muscles, and myofascial trigger points.
Patients may meet individually with a dedicated nurse educator who provides a focused session on bowel management techniques. Central to the process is a daily regimen that combines an evening dose of fiber supplement with a morning routine of mild physical activity; a hot, preferably caffeinated beverage; and, possibly, a fiber cereal followed by another cup of a hot beverage — all within 45 minutes of waking. This routine augments early morning high-amplitude peristaltic contractions by incorporating multiple colon stimulators.
But while “vaginal massage” is a general, nonspecific term, it may be used to treat the musculoskeletal system of the pelvic floor, notes Dr. Huang. Sometimes this may be internally through the vagina or anus, though the target isn’t the vagina itself, but rather the muscles. “Some muscles, like hip rotator and pelvic floor muscles, are better accessed internally,” she says. (Imbalances in other muscles like those found in the abdominal wall or hip girdle are best treated from the outside.)
Try Biofeedback. Biofeedback can help you learn how to strengthen or relax your pelvic floor muscles. Using special sensors that track your pelvic floor muscle function, you can learn how to activate the correct muscles to keep your pelvic floor toned. This is typically done in an office setting by a nurse or trained therapist. The sessions are usually about an hour. You sit in a comfortable chair with your clothes on after the sensors have been put in place – usually one on your abdomen and the other in your anal canal. The sensors measure the electrical activity of your pelvic floor muscles – especially the ones that control bladder and bowel function – while you contract and release the muscles. There are also home biofeedback devices you can purchase, but you should still have a pelvic floor assessment by a professional before using.
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.
Home exercise programs are essential for each patient. In the case of weakness, a patient will require more pelvic floor, core and functional strengthening and stability exercises. For overactive and pain conditions, the HEP typically consists of relaxation techniques, self-massages (both external and internal), gentle stretching, cardiovascular fitness as tolerated, and eventually pain-free core stability exercises. Both require postural and behavioral modifications and self-care strategies. For more information and detail, check out the book: Heal Pelvic Pain, by Amy Stein or her DVD: Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain here.
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.