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.
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.
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.
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.
Physical therapists (PTs) are experts in movement and function, which sounds like a pretty broad topic to be an expert in, and it is. After physical therapists graduate PT school (now-a-days at the doctoral level), they find their niche and specialize. You can find PTs working with high-level athletes, children, infants, people who are recovering from injuries, people with neurological conditions and many other types of clients.