The following is a guest submission from Alysson Striner, PT, DPT, PRPC. Dr. Striner became a Certified Pelvic Rehabilitation Practitioner (PRPC) in May of 2018. She specializes in pelvic rehabilitation, general outpatient orthopedics, and aquatics. She sees patients at Carondelet St Joesph’s Hospital in the Speciality Rehab Clinic located in Tucson, Arizona.
Myofascial pain from levator ani (LA) and obturator internus (OI) and connective tissues are a frequent driver of pelvic pain. As pelvic therapists, it can often be challenging to decipher whether pain is related to muscular and/or fascial restrictions. A quick review from Pelvic Floor Level 2B; overactive muscles can become functionally short (actively held in a shortened position). These pelvic floor muscles do not fully relax or contract. An analogy for this is when one lifts a grocery bag that is too heavy. One cannot lift the bag all the way or extend the arm all the way down, instead the person often uses other muscles to elevate or lower the bag. Over time both the muscle and fascial restrictions can occur when the muscle becomes structurally short (like a contracture). Structurally short muscles will appear flat or quiet on surface electromyography (SEMG). An analogy for this is when you keep your arm bent for too long, it becomes much harder to straighten out again. Signs and symptoms for muscle and fascial pain are pain to palpation, trigger points, and local or referred pain, a positive Q tip test to the lower quadrants, and common symptoms such as urinary frequency, urgency, pain, and/or dyspareunia.
For years in the pelvic floor industry there has been notable focus on vocabulary. Encouraging all providers (researchers, MDs, and PTs) to use the same words to describe pelvic floor dysfunction allowing more efficient communication. Now that we are (hopefully) using the same words, the focus is shifting to physical assessment of pelvic floor and myofascial pain. If patients can experience the same assessment in different settings then they will likely have less fear, and the medical professionals will be able to communicate more easily.
A recent article did a systematic review of physical exam techniques for myofascial pain of pelvic floor musculature. This study completed a systematic review for the examination techniques on women for diagnosis of LA and OI myofascial pain. In the end, 55 studies with 9460 participants; 99.8% were female, that met the inclusion and exclusion criteria were assessed. The authors suggest the following as good foundation to begin; but more studies will be needed to validate and to further investigate associations between chronic pelvic pain and lower urinary tract symptoms with myofascial pain.
The recommended sequence for examining pelvic myofascial pain is:
Authors recommend bilateral palpation and documentation of trigger point location and severity with VAS. They recommend visual inspection and observation of functional movement of pelvic floor muscles.
The good news is that this is exactly how pelvic therapists are taught to assess the pelvic floor in Pelvic Floor Level 1. This is reviewed in Pelvic Floor Level 2B and changed slightly for Pelvic Floor Level 2A when the pelvic floor muscles are assessed rectally. Ramona Horton also teaches a series on fascial palpation, beginning with Mobilization of the Myofascial Layer: Pelvis and Lower Extremity. I agree that palpation should be completed bilaterally by switching hands to make assessment easier for the practitioner who may be on the side of the patient/client depending on the set up. This is an important conversation between medical providers to allow for easy communication between disciplines.
Meister, Melanie & Shivakumar, Nishkala & Sutcliffe, Siobhan & Spitznagle, Theresa & L Lowder, Jerry. (2018). Physical examination techniques for the assessment of pelvic floor myofascial pain: a systematic review. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 219. 10.1016/j.ajog.2018.06.014
The following guest post comes to us from Angie Johnson, a physical therapist with Kaiser Permanente in Portland, OR.
Did you know that the pelvic floor muscles are actually quite thin? “Pelvic floor muscles are able to produce enough force to overcome changes in intra-abdominal pressure during less rigorous activities of daily living,“ but in activities such as coughing and jumping, “intra-abdominal pressure clearly exceeds the maximum force generated by pelvic floor muscles alone.”1 But we know that people are continent of urine during these activities, so it begs to question what structures help support the pelvic floor during high force events?
In our journey of pelvic rehabilitation and evidence-based medicine, researchers have determined that contributors to pelvic floor function include trunk stabilization2 and co-contraction of the abdominal wall (especially transverse abdominus)3,4. But this is only the beginning of the story. To add to this picture, new research, recently published in the Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy (January/April 2016) validates what we as practitioners already know; hip muscles play a crucial role in optimal pelvic floor functioning.
Knowledge of the anatomy of the pelvic floor and hip musculature helps to give us more understanding of the continence mechanism during high force activity. Obturator internus, which can be easily palpated through the vaginal wall “acts to externally rotate the hip. Interesting, this muscle actually shares a fascial attachment with the pelvic floor muscles.”
Researchers from a team at San Diego State University asked the very pertinent question: If you strengthen obturator internus do you strengthen the pelvic floor muscles too? To answer this question, they conducted a randomized control trial of 40 nulliparous women, aged 18-35, who were assigned to a hip exercise or control group. Both hip external rotator strength and pelvic floor muscle strength (via the Peritron™ perineometer) were measured in all of the women. The exercise group was then asked to perform clamshell exercises, isometric wall external rotation and “monster walks” as their specific hip exercises. The prescription of the exercises were 3 sets of 10 repetitions 3 days per week for 12 weeks. One session each week was supervised in the laboratory to ensure proper execution.
After the 12 weeks, the exercise group had an increase in hip external rotation strength, but also in pelvic floor muscle peak pressure. That was without any specific pelvic floor strengthening exercises at all. Strengthen the hips by doing these three exercises, and pelvic floor strength increases!! This is exciting and fantastic news for us as pelvic floor therapists and a good message to convey to our patients.
The results of this study are preliminary, but if you are treating pelvic floor weakness, hip external rotation strengthening exercises in addition to the traditional kegel strengthening exercises are a must. Go ahead – let’s all get hippie!
Tuttle LJ, DeLozier ER, Harter KA et al. The Role of the Obturator Internus Muscle in Pelvic Floor Function. Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy. 2016; 40, 1 pg 15-19
Sapsford R. Rehabilitation of pelvic floor muscles utilizing trunk stabilization. Man Ther 2004;9(1):31-42
Sapsford RR, Hodges PW, Ricahrdson CA, Cooper DH, Markwell SJ, Jull GA. Co-activation of the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during voluntary exercises. Neruourol Urodyn 2001;20(1):3-12
Sapsord RR, Hodges PW. Contraction of the pelvic floor muscles during abdominal maneuvers. Arch Phys Med REhabil. 2001;82(8):1081-1088