Building and maintaining a strong pelvic floor is crucial for women of all ages. The pelvic floor is a group of muscles at the bottom of your pelvis that supports the womb, bladder, and bowels. So if these muscles become weak—whether it's due to childbirth, pregnancy, aging, or weight gain—it may be challenging to control your bladder and bowel activity. This is referred to as incontinence, a condition that affects nearly 25 million Americans, 75% to 80% of which are women.
For internal massage, your PT may insert a finger into the vagina or rectum and massage the muscles and connective tissue directly. A frequently used technique is “Thiele stripping,” in which your therapist finds a trigger point by feeling a twitch in the muscle underneath, exercising it using a circular motion, and then putting pressure on it to help relax it, repeating the process until the muscle starts to release. Internal massage can also help release nerves. Sometimes, anesthetics can be injected into these trigger points. PTs may do this in a few states, but in most states, a doctor or nurse must administer injections.
The “pelvic floor” refers to a group of muscles that attach to the front, back, and sides of the pelvic bone and sacrum (the large fused bone at the bottom of your spine, just above the tailbone). Like a sling or hammock, these muscles support the organs in the pelvis, including the bladder, uterus or prostate, and rectum. They also wrap around your urethra, rectum, and vagina (in women).
Pelvic floor dysfunction is common for many women and includes symptoms that can affect all aspects of everyday life and activities. Pelvic floor muscle (PFM) training is vital for treating different types of pelvic floor dysfunction. Two common problems are uterine prolapse and urinary incontinence both of which stem from muscle weakness. Without the ability to control PFM, pelvic floor training cannot be done successfully. Being able to control PFM is vital for a well functioning pelvic floor. Through vaginal palpation exams and the use of biofeedback the tightening, lifting, and squeezing actions of these muscles can be determined. In addition, abdominal muscle training has been shown to improve pelvic floor muscle function. By increasing abdominal muscle strength and control, a person may have an easier time activating the pelvic floor muscles in sync with the abdominal muscles. Many physiotherapists are specially trained to address the muscles weaknesses associated with pelvic floor dysfunction and through intervention can effectively treat this.
Biofeedback: This is the most common treatment, done with the help of a physical therapist. Biofeedback is not painful, and helps over 75% of people with pelvic floor dysfunction. Your physical therapist might use biofeedback in different ways to retrain your muscles. For example, they may use special sensors and video to monitor the pelvic floor muscles as you try to relax or clench them. Your therapist then gives you feedback and works with you to improve your muscle coordination.
Pelvic floor dysfunction may include any of a group of clinical conditions that includes urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, sensory and emptying abnormalities of the lower urinary tract, defecatory dysfunction, sexual dysfunction and several chronic pain syndromes, including vulvodynia in women and chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CP/CPPS) in men. The three most common and definable conditions encountered clinically are urinary incontinence, anal incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
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.
Currently there is no surefire way to distinguish PFD from IC, and oftentimes patients have both conditions. Some healthcare providers examine pelvic floor muscles externally and internally to gauge their tightness (tightness indicates PFD). Other IC and PFD experts, like ICA Medical Advisory Board member, Robert Moldwin, MD, perform a lidocaine challenge. By instilling lidocaine into the bladder, Dr. Moldwin determines whether your pain is coming from your bladder, which would indicate IC.
As many as 50 percent of people with chronic constipation have pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) — impaired relaxation and coordination of pelvic floor and abdominal muscles during evacuation. Straining, hard or thin stools, and a feeling of incomplete elimination are common signs and symptoms. But because slow transit constipation and functional constipation can overlap with PFD, some patients may also present with other signs and symptoms, such as a long time between bowel movements and abdominal pain.
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.
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves applied through a wand or probe on your skin to produce an internal image or to help treat pain. Real-time ultrasound can let you see your pelvic floor muscles functioning and help you learn to relax them. Therapeutic ultrasound uses sound waves to produce deep warmth that may help reduce spasm and increase blood flow or, on a nonthermal setting, may promote healing and reduce inflammation.