Many years ago a urology doctor shared the skill of testing vaginal pH as part of my pelvic floor exam. I’ve since used it to gather objective data around estrogen status, often finding elevated levels in post-partum, breastfeeding, and peri and post-menopausal women. When correlated with symptoms and visual skin changes this can be a helpful tool to both direct treatment and monitor treatment effectiveness.
To perform pH testing, place a pH strip into the distal vagina. Let it sit there for a few seconds to absorb vaginal moisture. Remove and record results. Any concerning changes in vaginal pH can be documented and reported back to your patient’s medical provider.
Let me start this plog (picture/blog?) by saying it had been almost 2 years since Nari Clemons and I taught Boundaries, Self Care, and Meditation for the first time. Nari had some amazing ideas to change some of the course material to reflect more of our hearts’ intention for personal reflection and transformative change. We were excited and nervous to see how our second run of this material would be received. We were also profoundly aware of how the (at times painful) events in our lives that led up to the development of the course have molded and shaped us into much healthier versions of ourselves. We wanted to share a bit about what we have learned and how it has changed us.
We met up in beautiful San Diego on Thursday. Because this course was Saturday to Mononday we had an added bonus of extra time to spend together. We decided to spend our time practicing what we talk about in class.
1. Get out in nature:
*Disclaimer: this essay is meant to be read in a voice of complete transparency and humility.
Two summers ago I was anxiously anticipating a break. I was wrapping up home school for my girls and had scheduled some down time from writing my contribution to “Boundaries, Meditation and Self-Care” when I got the call…
Rewind a bit. Two years prior I also got a call. Would I be interested in writing a chapter in a Urology textbook on alternative care for pelvic pain conditions…edited by and partnering with a big name in pelvic floor rehab? Oh yes indeed I would! I have always dreamed of seeing my name in print. Was I scared out of my mind? Heck yes! I was working 20 hours a week, part time home schooling my girls and teaching for Herman & Wallace. I had one day a week to myself for cleaning, errands, the occasional book reading or interacting with friends. I decided I could spend my next year of Fridays researching, writing and editing said chapter. Oh, I also started therapy for the anxiety increase that came with the project. My therapist suggested I hire help with house cleaning, which I did. She also suggested meditation, mindfulness and using essential oils. I opted not to enact these suggestions. It was a crazy year, but I learned a ton and was proud of my contribution to the publication.
This is part two of a three-part series on self-care and preventing practitioner burnout from faculty member Jennafer Vande Vegte, MSPT, BCB-PMD, PRPC. Part One is available here. Jennafer is the co-author and co-instructor of the along with Nari Clemons, PT, PRPC.
Augh, I was so frustrated with myself. I fell for it again. Here’s the scenario: a patient came in suffering excruciating pain. She had been to see a pelvic health professional as well as various medical professionals and was unable to get relief and answers for her rectal pain. She was desperate and called me “her last hope.” Phrases used included, “I need you! Fix me! I hear you are a miracle worker! If you can’t help me no one can!” And just like that I took on the role of Rescuer.
In 1968 a psychiatrist named Stephen Karpman developed a model of personal interaction that he called the Conflict Triangle. It has also become known as the Karpman Triangle, The Drama triangle or the Victim triangle. Per Wikipedia:
The following is the first in a series on self-care and preventing practitioner burnout from faculty member Jennafer Vande Vegte, MSPT, BCB-PMD, PRPC. Jennafer is the co-author and co-instructor of the Boundaries, Self-Care, and Meditation course along with Nari Clemons, PT, PRPC.
“I just want you to fix me.” How many times have we heard this statement from our patients? And how do we respond? In my former life as a “rescuer” this statement would be a personal challenge. I wanted to be the fixer, find the solution and identify the thing that no one else had seen yet. Then, if I am being completely honest, bask in the glory of being the “miracle worker” and “never giving up” on my patient.
If you recognize that this attitude was going to run me into some problems, kudos to you. If you are thinking, “well of course, isn’t that your job as a pelvic floor physical therapist?” Please read on.
While my dad was visiting Michigan, we had the day to ourselves as my kids were in school. I was so excited to have quality time with my dad. Unfortunately it was pouring down rain. We decided on a leisurely brunch and then a movie. Dad chose the movie, “Wind River.” While not a movie I would normally pick, I was happy to go along. A little more than half way through…there was a horribly violent scene against a young women. I panicked, plugged my ears and closed my eyes. Unfortunately some images were burned into the back of my mind. When the movie was over, I remained seated and tears just came. My dad held me while I cried. I was able to calm down and leave the theater, but the images continued to bother me. During the next few days, I made it a priority to care for myself and allow my nervous system to process and heal.
What happened to me? I have never had any traumatic personal experience. Why did I react so strongly? I talked with my therapist about it and she suggested I might have experienced secondary traumatic stress. We know, as pelvic health therapists, we need extra time to hear the “stories” of new patients. We do our best to create a safe space for them so they can trust us and we can help them discover pathways to healing. Yet no one has taught us what we are supposed to do with the traumatic stories our patients share. How are we to cope with holding space for their pain? How do we put on a happy face as we exit the room to get the next patient?
Teaching Capstone over the last few years, Nari Clemons and I have talked with many of you who were feeling emotionally overloaded especially when treating chronic pelvic pain and trauma survivors. Some of you were experiencing job burnout, others were deciding maybe it was time for a career shift, away from the pelvis. We realized something needed to be done as our field was losing talented pelvic health therapists. We have also struggled ourselves with various aspects of our profession.
Today we pick up on Jennafer Vande Vegte's interview with her patient, "Ben", about his experience overcoming chronic pelvic pain syndrome. Ben's quality of life improved so much that he has returned to school in order to become a PTA, with a focus on pelvic rehabilitation!
Describe your physical therapy experience. Talk about your recovery process. Include the physical, mental and emotional components.
For my initial visit, my therapist questioned and assessed my pain, then explained pelvic floor dysfunction. She made sure I understood that the evaluation and treatment process involved internal rectal work. After developing the condition and months of seeing doctors who didn’t listen, finally I found a physical therapist who was actually listening to me and determined to get to the bottom of what was going on. I could tell she already knew much about the mechanics (if not the exact cause) because she had treated other patients with the same issues. I immediately sensed a difference from any other health care professional in attitude, compassion, and knowledge. Of course, how do you know for sure? Well, you don’t. But after repeated visits and excellent results, you experience the difference. An important realization while going to Physical Therapy is learning to see the mind-body connection. In the back of my mind I sensed that my pain was being perpetuated by emotional trauma. This is not an intuitive way of thinking when you are in constant high-level, 5-alarm pain. I was obsessed with finding the cause of my pain, but chronic pain is extremely elusive and complicated.
Recently my coworkers and I celebrated a male patient’s recovery from a long and difficult journey with persistent pelvic pain. “Ben’s” case had many elements of what we normally see in our patients: chronic muscle holding, restricted fascia, allodynia, hyperalgesia, castrophizing and kenisiophobia. Ben was also very upfront about how his pain impacted his emotional well-being and vice versa. His healing process taught us a lot about the biopsychosocial aspects of treating persistent pain. Along his journey we dreamed of the day we could write a blog together and help other people learn from the experience. Ben also decided to make a career change entering school to become a PTA so that he could help others in pain. Here is my interview with this brave patient.
1. Tell us about how your pain started
My pain started with urethral burning. Tests showed there was no infection. In retrospect, the cause of pain could have been the beginning of tension on pudendal nerve branches from extreme stress and a series of traumatic incidents that happened within weeks of each other. They included a very embarrassing and stressful summer of unemployment, a father who had heart failure and triple bypass in the fall, and a girlfriend who gave me an ultimatum when I was too stressed to get an erection.
2. What medical tests or treatments were done?
When the pain started, I first thought it was a basic urinary tract infection. I went to the med center and was prescribed an antibiotic. After 3 days without change, I went back in and although they still found no sign of infection, they prescribed an additional antibiotic. The urethral pain never stopped and seemed to get worse. Following a series of visits to numerous doctors and urologists, I repeated tests on the prostate fluid, blood tests, and more bacterial tests. No infection. My PCP also made a fairly large overture of testing me repeatedly for HIV. For five months I had a blood test every month, all came back negative. This was damaging to my psyche. For those months I was terrified my life was over. In retrospect, that doctor was out of line, I changed doctors.
Recently I had a patient referred to me for fecal incontinence. She looked so familiar to me and we realized she had seen me before, years ago, for bladder issues. She was a sweet 60 something single woman who had raised 6 kids on her own after her husband left her. We laughed as she remembered something funny I had said back then. Then we got down to business. In recent years my patient “Inez” had been diagnosed with both diabetes and Crohn’s disease. She was managing the Crohn’s very well but her sugars were much harder for her to get under control. When I asked her about her current complaints and symptoms she reported that most days her bowels were perfect. She reported one or two soft easy to pass stools per day. But when she had to leave the house for a doctor appointment, she would have explosive diarrhea. This didn’t happen if she went to the grocery store or to visit a friend. Upon further questioning she realized she was really anxious about her diabetes and her interactions with her medical provider regarding her diabetes had not been positive. She felt frustrated, scared, and powerless.
As a pelvic health PT I could have treated Inez in a variety of ways. With my initial exam I did not see any glaring musculoskeletal issues. I suggested to Inez the possibility that her nervous system was sending the wrong kind of signals to her bowels when she got anxious and that we could address this in PT. Inez agreed that she would like to try this approach. We decided that we would reevaluate after four visits to see if we needed to change the plan. Over four visits I used craniosacral therapy protocols to address nervous system upregulation and tension. I taught Inez relaxation techniques and encouraged 10 or 15 minutes of daily relaxation practice. Inez opened up about her relationship with her kids and how they tended to be takers but not givers. She would get frustrated and feel a bit used at times. We had conversations about boundaries and saying “no” and I shared some of my own experiences and struggles as well. Lastly we talked about how what we think can affect how we feel and what we do. Inez’s faith was important to her. She found a few bible verses that were meaningful to her about fear and anxiety and would repeat those during her daily relaxation time. On her fourth visit, Inez was all smiles. She brought me a jar of her homemade salsa as a graduation present. As we sat down to talk she reported to me that she saw her doctor yesterday. She had no bowel issues. And more than that, as her doctor began to talk over her she said to him, “No. Stop. You are always talking and never listening. I need you to listen to me today.” She went on to explain to him how it worried her that she was not able to control her diabetes well and she didn’t think he was doing enough to help her. Her physician did stop and listen and asked Inez, “what would you like me to do for you?” She asked for a referral to a specialist and he obliged. Inez was thrilled that she was able to manage her anxiety in a way that helped her bowels and to find the courage to confront her doctor to get the care she felt she needed.
As we grow in the knowledge of how the human body works it seems like all roads lead back to the nervous system. All of our treatments and interactions with patients affect the nervous system in one way or another. In our fast paced, stressed out world, finding ways to be intentional in addressing the nervous system can be a game changer for patients (as well as for ourselves). If this is an area you would like to grow in, please consider a new course being offered this January in Tampa, Florida. Participants taking Holistic Interventions and Meditation will experience and explore evidence-based information on strategies to address the nervous system. Topics covered include practical meditation, use of essential oils, supplements, yoga, calming and centering manual techniques and instruction in how to best dialogue with patients struggling with pain, anxiety and the effects of trauma. Nari Clemons and I hope to see you there.
The first time I experienced the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was when my patient dissociated during a treatment session and relived the rape that had occurred when she was ten years old. It was devastating. I didn’t know what to do. She was unresponsive to my intervention. Her eyes didn’t see me, alternating between wide-eyed, horrified panic and clenched-closed, lip biting excruciating pain. It was my late night and I was alone in the clinic. I sat helplessly next to my sweet patient hoping and praying that her torture would end quickly. When she finally stopped writhing, she slept. Deep and hard. Finally she woke up disoriented and scared. She grabbed her things and left. For me, this experience was my initiation into the world of trauma.
Approximately 5-6 % of men and 10-12% of women will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. Researchers believe that 10% of people exposed to trauma will go on to develop PTSD. The expression of PTSD symptoms can present differently in men and women. Men may have more externalizing disorders progressing along a scale that includes vigilance, resistance, defiance, aggression and homicidal thoughts. Women tend to present with internalizing disorders such as depression, anxiety, exaggerated startle responses, dissociation, and suicidal thoughts. The research is clear that both men and women with PTSD display changes in brain function. The mid brain (amygdala, basal ganglia and hippocampus) tends to be overactive in sounding alarm signals while the prefrontal cortex fails to turn off the mid brain when a threat is no longer present. Since the prefrontal cortex is not always functioning correctly, traditional talk therapy may not be as effective for treating PTSD. Instead, say many researchers, breath and movement exercises may help regulate brain functioning. Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation have been shown to have a positive impact on down regulating the mid brain and improving cerebral output. As pelvic floor therapists we deal with trauma on a daily basis, whether we know it or not. Although we are not trained in psychology, understanding PTSD and equipping ourselves with tools to support our patients is imperative for both our patients and ourselves.
You might be wondering what happened after that frightful night in the clinic? My patient was determined to get better. She had a non-relaxing pelvic floor. She was a teacher and was plagued by urinary distress. She either had terrible urgency or would go for hours and not be able to empty her bladder. So we met with her therapist to learn strategies to help us to be able to work together without triggering dissociation. It was a slow road, but the three of us working together helped my patient not only reach her goals but to be able to be skillful enough to maintain her gains using a dilator for self-treatment.