The Pelvic Floor Paradox
September 2, 2020
The Pelvic Floor Paradox
September 2, 2020
When I started writing this periodic column, I mentioned that every now and then, a "wow-factor" enters my life; synchronistic events and pieces of information coincide to illuminate what was previously foggy. As the fog lifts, simultaneous thoughts often occur. The first thought is, "It's obvious why I didn't see it before" coupled with "Is there evidence to support this?" As I hope you will agree at the end of this short article, "it" is obvious, and there is abundant evidence. So what is "it" and what is "the problem?"
Let's start with a clinical fact I have been aware of, but have been unable to explain. In recent years, more and more of my younger female patients have reported symptoms ranging from variable to acute pelvic pain to stress incontinence, interstitial (i.e., nonbacterial) cystitis, vestibulitis and painful intercourse (dyspareunia). Many of these patients had seen appropriate experts in genitourinary medicine and/or physical medicine, and most had been prescribed what can best be described as "toning" (Kegel-type) exercises for presumed laxity in their pelvic floor muscles, along with various forms of medication.
Now, clearly, the patients I was seeing were the ones in whom such treatment had failed. However, because the practitioners prescribing these methods continued to do so, I must assume they worked for many. But they had not worked for those distressed (mainly) young ladies consulting me, whose lives were in turmoil because of considerable and sometimes constant pain in a very intimate part of their anatomy. All too often, these women were socially incapacitated due to their incontinence; with many unable to have normal relationships. And most of these women were no older than their early 20s.
Structural evaluation often revealed very well-toned musculature. Many had a history involving athletics, gymnastics or dance, and it also was common to have a report of emphasis on Pilates toning exercises with insufficient emphasis on flexibility. Frequently, there was extreme shortness of some of the muscles attaching to the pelvis, particularly the adductors, hip flexors and the ("core stability") abdominals.
In the United Kingdom, my license as a doctor of osteopathy allows me to conduct internal examination and treatment with informed consent, but this was not part of my usual assessment protocol - until recently, that is.
Nowadays, with a clinical chaperone or member of the patient's family present, such examinations are always suggested (and sometimes declined) in such cases.
What changed my approach? Evidence that the problems in most of these unfortunate patients was not reduced tone, but increased and excessive tone, together with the wonderful work of (mainly U.S.-based) medical and manual therapy practitioners who rediscovered something demonstrated many years ago1 - that trigger points can cause all of these symptoms, and that the trigger points and the symptoms frequently can be removed manually.
Diversion to Australia
Before going more deeply into the high-tone/trigger-point connection, I want to take you to Melbourne, Australia, where a part of the complex picture began to fall into place.
The 5th World Congress on Low Back and Pelvic Pain (November 2004) was held in beautiful (magnificent might be a better word) Melbourne, where I was presenting a paper on the influence of breathing pattern disorders and motor control associated with back pain. On the same panel was the wonderful Diane Lee, PT, from Vancouver, B.C. In front of some 2,000 delegates, she was discussing and showing video clips of paradoxical behaviour of the pelvic floor in women with stress incontinence.2 Ultrasound images of the pelvic floor and bladder were shown in which, when asked to "retract" or "draw the pelvic floor upward," quite the opposite happened and the pelvic floor, along with the bladder, dropped toward the floor with the incontinence consequences.
In real life, such women would try to prevent from wetting themselves by the natural response of tightening and drawing up and in, but what if the muscles trying to tighten and draw up already were as tight as they could possibly be? Perhaps the better response would have been to learn to relax these clenched muscles (or to have them manually relaxed), and to be able to influence the pelvic floor via a relearned awareness of muscle control?
This was Diane's objective. To me, the "wow factor" was the recognition that these women were almost certainly also going to demonstrate paradoxical diaphragm behaviour and unbalanced breathing (and most do), which is one of my main areas of interest.3 It would be fair to say that, after that presentation, my area of interest moved south to incorporate that other diaphragm, the pelvic floor. My belief is that if normal diaphragm (breathing) function can be restored and the pelvic floor muscles relaxed, re-education can take place efficiently and relatively easily. A part of that process requires that active trigger points - in the lower abdomen, inner thigh and sometimes internally - be deactivated as the muscles are restored to their normal length and tone. Is there evidence for any of this?
Sometime before World War II, a physician named Thiele developed a technique in which coccygeal prostate problems were treated by means of massage of specific muscles, mainly levator ani.4 This approach (see description in the third bulleted item below) currently is used in major centers in the U.S. to treat prostate pain and the sort of pelvic floor problems discussed above.5 Examples include:
So, this story is not just about pelvic pain and incontinence, but possible irritable bowel disease and, in some instances, sacroiliac dysfunction. Is this not a remarkable conjunction of influences, often linked to hypertonicity and dysfunctional patterns such as breathing?
The Tennis Ball Trick
For many practitioners, the Thiele form of massage may be in contravention of their license. In such cases, a referral to an appropriately licensed and trained practitioner is one option. Even where this is seen to be a good clinical choice, focus on normalizing the associated pelvic muscles and breathing function offers a positive option.
Another option was offered to me by a therapist (ex-dancer) at a recent workshop. She reported she had suffered many of the symptoms outlined above, and had been instructed in Kegel exercises for her incontinence. She noted that these exercises had aggravated rather than helped her. A yoga therapist had then advised her to purchase a tennis ball and sit on it with the ball (placed on a firm surface such as a carpeted floor) strategically placed under the perineum, between anus and the vagina; and to allow the pressure onto the ball to deeply relax the pelvic floor muscles for five to 10 minutes daily. She reported that this procedure was somewhat uncomfortable at first, but that the effects were dramatic in terms of her symptoms. I have since recommended this to several patients for home use and all have reported benefit.
Don't Forget the Psychological Aspect
This is a complex story, and I don't want to leave you with the impression it can all be solved by a tennis ball, although this might offer symptomatic relief for many. It's essential to note that in many such cases of clenched pelvic floor muscles, there is a background of assault or abuse (although a great many seem to be caused by nothing more than mechanically-produced, excessive tone with a background of dance, athletics and bad Pilates). Where there is a psychosocial or psychosexual element to the condition, appropriate professional support usually is needed along with bodywork.
The information offered above should at least provide a sense of what might be happening in some patient's bodies. Those trained in neuromuscular therapy know that aspects of this work usually are a part of that training. Information on the inter-rectal NMT approach is provided in Clinical Applications of Neuromuscular Techniques, Volume 2 (pp. 384-387)11 for information only, unless the methods are within your scope of practice.
Working on relaxation of the region (adductors, etc., as a first focus!), possibly deactivating trigger points if they are readily accessible, along with breathing rehabilitation, offer practical ways forward. And the tennis ball trick might just be an answer for some.