It is essential that we, as pelvic floor physical therapists, also include other assessments when we are examining our patients for the very first time. We employ the tried and true physical therapy exam practices to determine if there is an underlying condition elsewhere in your body, such as a strength deficit or alignment issue that could be affecting your pelvic floor. It’s wild to think of it, but something as seemingly unrelated as a flat foot or a hip injury can be enough to set off pelvic and abdominal pain!
Vaginal cones. These are small plastic cones that you put inside your vagina for about 15 minutes, twice a day. The cones come in a set of different weights. At first, the lightest cone is used. You will naturally use your pelvic floor muscles to hold the cone in place. This is how they help you to exercise your pelvic floor muscles. Once you can hold on to the lightest one comfortably, you move up to the next weight and so on.
Surface electrodes (self-adhesive pads placed on your skin) can test your pelvic muscle control. This might be an option if you don’t want an internal exam. The electrodes are placed on the perineum (the area between the vagina and rectum in women, and between the testicles and rectum in men) or on the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of your spine). This test is not painful.
Tabletop splits: Tabletop splits engage your core, hips, inner thigh muscles, and pelvic floor. To do a tabletop split, lie down on your back in a comfortable position on the floor, and bring your knees up in the air, so your thighs are perpendicular to the ground. Slowly spread your knees until your legs are as far apart as they can comfortably go, then slowly bring your knees back together. Repeat 10–15 times, up to three times per day.
It can take several months of routine bowel or urinary medications and pelvic floor physical therapy before symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction start to improve. The most important part of treatment is to not give up. Forgetting to take your medications every day will cause your symptoms to continue and possibly get worse. Also, skipping physical therapy appointments or not practicing exercises can slow healing.
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.
“I intentionally try and distract you during treatment, so that you don’t focus too much on the pain of the treatment. Furthermore, talking during our sessions continues to build rapport which is so important — it builds trust, makes you feel more comfortable, and also makes it more likely that you will return for your follow-up visits so that you will get better,” she says.
With her finger inside me, Christensen mentioned that the three superficial pelvic floor muscles on each side were very tight and tensed when she touched them. I was too tight and in pain for her to check the deepest muscle (the obturator internus). Finally, she checked to see if I could do a Kegel or relax the muscles, and I was unable to do either.
Kegels: American gynecologist Arnold Kegel created this seminal pelvic floor exercise. To do a Kegel, contract your muscles that stop the flow of urine, hold for five seconds, then release for five seconds. Repeat this exercise 10–15 times, up to three times per day. Avoid doing Kegel exercises when urinating since stopping the flow midstream can cause some urine to remain in your bladder, putting you at a higher risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs).