In a previous post on The Pelvic Rehab Report Sagira Vora, PT, MPT, WCS, PRPC told us how "women with sexually adverse experiences tend to have impaired genital response when in consensual sexual situations, however, women who do not have sexual abuse histories and but have sexual pain tend to have appropriate genital response." Today Sagira helps us understand how the pelvic floor responds to consensual sexual activity in women with a history of sexual trauma.
Today we try to look for answers for questions that came up during the last blogs.
How does the cohort that has had adverse sexual experiences present? How do women with history of sexual trauma process sexual experiences? How does the pelvic floor present or respond to consensual sexual situations when a woman has been abused in the past?
To answer these questions, it’s important to understand two facts about the pelvic floor. 1) the pelvic floor plays a role in emotional processing1, and 2) muscle activity in all muscles, including the pelvic floor, increases with exposure to stress and during anxiety evoking experiences2.
We explored in the last blog that women with sexual abuse histories responded with increased pelvic floor overactivity when watching movie clips with sexually threatening and consensual sexual content. Apparently, for women with sexual abuse history even consensual sexual situations can be experienced as threatening1.
Lehrer et. al. found overactivity in the neuronal and hormonal circuits that increase sexual arousal and activity. These circuits are already overactive in individuals who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and increased activity can increase anxiety, fear and other symptoms of PTSD instead of normal sexual arousal and excitement during a sexual experience2. For the woman with PTSD this means that sexual arousal signals impending threat rather than pleasure1. And as we already learned in previous blogs and above that when humans feel threatened they respond by tightening muscles and most notably the pelvic floor muscle.
Significant co-relation is found between sexual abuse, subsequent PTSD and chronic pelvic pain3. Hooker et. al, found irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain, and physical and sexual abuse to be the most commonly diagnosed together4. More importantly, when patients were successfully treated for PTSD they continued to be 2.7 times more likely to have pelvic floor dysfunction and 2.4 times more likely to have sexual dysfunction. This builds the case for interventions that are multidisciplinary to help patients of abuse and sexual assault, with the pelvic floor therapist playing a significant role.
In the next blog, lets explore how the pelvic floor therapist can work with a counselor and a sex therapist to help the woman with sexual pain dysfunction.
Anna Padoa and Talli Rosenbaum. The overactive pelvic floor. Springer. 1st ed. 2016
Yehuda R, Lehrner A, Rosenbaum TY. PTSD and sexual dysfunction in men and women. J Sex Med. 2015:12(5):1107-19
Blok BF. Holstege G. The neuronal control of micturition and its relation to the emotional motor system. Prog Brain Res. 1996; 107:113-26
Para ML, Chen LP, Goranson EN, Sattler AL, Colbenson KM, Seime RJ, Et. al. Sexual abuse and lifetime diagnoses of somatic disorders. JAMA. 2013; 302:550-61
Hooker AB, van Moorst BR, van Haarst EP, Van Ootegehem NAM, van Dijken DKE, Heres MHB, Chronic pelvic pain: evaluation of the epidemiology, baseline characteristics, and clinical variables via a prospective and multidisciplinary approach. Clin Exp Obstet Gynecol. 2013; 40:492-8
In a previous post on The Pelvic Rehab Report Sagira Vora, PT, MPT, WCS, PRPC shared that "cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to play a significant role in improving sexual function in women". Today, in part three of her ongoing series on sex and pelvic health, Sagira explores how sexual pain affects sexual dysfunction in women.
After having explored what allows for women to have pleasurable sexual experiences including pain-free sex and mind-blowing orgasms, we now turn towards our cohort that have pain with sex and intimacy. How does this group differ from women who do not have pain with sex? Are there some common factors with this group of women, and perhaps understanding these factors may help the pelvic floor therapist render more effective and successful treatment?
There are few studies exploring sexual arousal in women with sexual pain disorders. However, their findings are remarkable. Brauer and colleagues found that genital response, as measured by vaginal photoplethysmography and subjective reports, was found to be equal in women with sexual pain vs. women who did not have pain, when they were shown oral sex and intercourse movie clips. This and other studies have shown that genital response in women with dyspareunia is not impaired. Genital response in women with dyspareunia is however, effected by fear of pain. When Brauer and colleagues subjected women with dyspareunia to threat of electrical shock (not actual shock) while watching an erotic movie clip they found that women with dyspareunia had much diminished sexual response including diminished genital arousal. But Spano and Lamont found that genital response was diminished by fear of pain equally in women with sexual pain and women without sexual pain.
Fear of pain also resulted in increased muscle activity in the pelvic floor. However, this increase was noted in women with pain and women without sexual pain equally and was noted with exposure to sexually threatening film clips as well as threatening film clips without sexual content. The conclusion, then, from these results is that the pelvic floor plays a role in emotional processing and tightening, or overactivity is a protective response noted in all women regardless of sexual pain history.
The one difference that was noted was with women who had the experience of sexual abuse. For them, pelvic floor overactivity was noted when watching sexually threatening as well consensual sexual content. Women without sexual abuse history did not have increased pelvic floor activity when watching consensual sexual content.
In summary, evidence supports the hypothesis that women with sexually adverse experiences tend to have impaired genital response when in consensual sexual situations, however, women who do not have sexual abuse histories and but have sexual pain tend to have appropriate genital response. Both groups, however, have increased pelvic floor muscle activity in consensual sexual situations. This increase in pelvic floor muscle activity leads to muscle pain, reduced blood flow, reduced lubrication, increased friction between penis and vulvar skin and hence leads to pain.
This brings us to our next questions, how does the cohort that has had adverse sexual experiences present? How do women with history of sexual trauma process sexual experiences? How does the pelvic floor present or respond to consensual sexual situations when a woman has been abused in the past? Please tune in to the next blog for answers…
Blok BF, Holstege G. The neuronal control of micturition and its relation to the emotional motor system. Prog Brain Res. 1996; 107:113-26
Brauer M, Laan E, ter Kuile MM. Sexual arousal in women with superficial dyspareunia. Arch Sex Behav. 2006; 35:191-200
Brauer M, ter Kuile MM, Janssen S, Lann E. The effect of pain-related fear on sexual arousal in women with superficial dyspareunia. Eur J Pain: 2007; 11:788-98
Spano L, Lamont JA. Dyspareunia: a symptom of female sexual dysfunction. Can Nurse 1975;71:22-5
In a previous post on The Pelvic Rehab Report, Sagira Vora, PT, MPT, WCS, PRPC explored the impact that pelvic floor exercises can have on arousal and orgasm in women. Today we hear part two of the conversation, and learn what factors can impact a woman's ability to achieve orgasm.
“An orgasm in the human female is a variable, transient peak sensation of intense pleasure, creating an altered state of consciousness, usually with an initiation accompanied by involuntary, rhythmic contractions of the pelvic striated circumvaginal musculature, often with concomitant uterine and anal contractions, and myotonia that resolves the sexually induced vasocongestion and myotonia, generally with an induction of well-being and contentment.”
Wow, that sounds like paradise! The question is--how to get there? Many of our cohorts and many our female patients have not experienced this or orgasm happens for them rarely. Findings from surveys and clinical reports suggest that orgasm problems are the second most frequently reported sexual problems in women. Some of the reasons cited for lack of orgasm are orgasm importance, sexual desire, sexual self-esteem, and openness of sexual communication with partner by Kontula el. al. in 2016. Rowland found that most commonly-endorsed reasons were stress/anxiety, insufficient arousal, and lack of time during sex, body image, pain, inadequate lubrication.
One factor that comes up consistently, is the ability of women to focus on sexual stimuli. This point has been brought up by various studies and presented in different ways. Chambless talks about mindfulness training and improvements in orgasm ability noted equally in women who practiced mindfulness vs. women who engaged in Kegels and mindfulness. Rosenbaum and Padua note in their book, The Overactive Pelvic Floor, “women who do not have a low-tone pelvic floor and who seek to enhance sexual arousal and more frequent orgasms have not much to gain from pelvic floor muscle training. Actually, a relaxed pelvic floor and mindful attention to sexual stimuli and bodily sensations seem a more effective means of enhancing sexual arousal and orgasm.” Various studies specifically studying the effect of mindfulness training have demonstrated both improved arousal and orgasm ability in women who practiced mindfulness. Brotto and Basson found their treatment group, which consisted of 68 otherwise healthy women, who underwent mindful meditation, cognitive behavioral training and education, improved in sexual desire, sexual arousal, lubrication, sexual satisfaction, and overall sexual functioning.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to play a significant role in improving sexual function in women. Meston et. al. notes, “cognitive behavioral therapy for anorgasmia focuses on promoting changes in attitudes and sexually relevant thoughts, decreasing anxiety, and increasing orgasmic ability and satisfaction. To date there are no pharmacological agents proven to be beneficial beyond placebo in enhancing orgasmic function in women.”
Alas, there are no magic pills to create the above described “state of altered consciousness,” allowing women a sense of “well-being and contentment.” However, mindfulness training and cognitive behavioral therapy are both accessible and attainable for women who want to improve their ability to enjoy this much desired state. Many Pelvic floor therapist incorporate cognitive behavioral and mindfulness approaches in their practice.
The studies above mention pain as one of the factors for inability to experience arousal and orgasm. Hucker and Mccabe even noted that their mindfulness treatment group demonstrated significant improvements in all domains of female sexual response except for sexual pain. Dealing with sexual pain is a daily battle pelvic floor therapist face each day. So, how do women with sexual pain dysfunction differ from women who are experiencing sexual dysfunction but not pain? Let’s explore this in our next blog…
Chambless DL, Sultan FE, Stern TE, O’Neill C, Garrison S. Jackson A. Effect of pubococcygeal exercise on coital orgasm in women. J Consult CLin Psychol. 1984; 52:114-8
Bratto LA, Basson R. Group mindfulness-based therapy significantly improves sexual desire in women Behav Res Ther. 2014 Jun; 57:43-5
Hucker A. Mccabe MP. Incorporating Mindfulness and Chat Groups Into an Online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mixed Female Sexual Problems. J Sex Res. 2015;52(6):627-33
Kontula O., Mettienen A. Determinants of female sexual orgasms. Socioaffect Neurosci Psychol. 2016 Oct 25;6:31624. doi: 10.3402/snp.v6.31624. eCollection 2016
Meston CM1, Levin RJ, Sipski ML, Hull EM, Heiman JR. Women’s orgasm. Annu Rev Sex Res. 2004;15:173-257. Review
Rosenbaum, Talli Y., Padoa, Anna. The overactive Pelvic floor. 1st ed. 2016
Roland DL, Cempel LM, Tempel AR. Women’s attributions on why they have difficulty reaching orgasm. J. Marital Therapy. 2018 Jan 3:0
Sagira Vora, PT, MPT, WCS, PRPC practices in Bellevue, WA at the Overlake Hospital Medical Center, and she played a pivotal role in creating the Pelvic Rehabilitation Practitioner Certification examination. Today's post is part one of a multi-part series on pelvic rehabilitation and sexual health. Stay tuned for part two!
“Have mind-blowing sex: learn how to do your Kegels.” “Amazing orgasms, ladies do your Kegels!” These were just some of the headlines that greeted me as I researched what was being said in the popular media regarding pelvic floor exercises and improving sexual function in women. Some other wisdom from popular women’s magazines included advice on, “stopping the flow of urine,” to do your Kegels. We know how much we pelvic floor therapists love hearing that phrase!
How about taking a slightly more scientific view and really finding what helps women improve sexual function?
I found a few recent and past studies that have tried to study pelvic floor exercises and sexual function in women.
In 1984, Chambless et.al. studied a small group of women who were able to achieve orgasm through intercourse less than 30% of time. Strength gains in the pubococcygeus muscles were noted in the exercise group but neither the exercise nor control group achieved increased orgasmic frequency.
In a more recent study, Lara et. al. studied 32 sexually active post-menopausal women, who had the ability to contract their pelvic floor muscles, tested the hypothesis that 3 months of physical exercises including pelvic floor muscle training with biweekly physical therapy visits and exercise performed at home three times a week, would enhance sexual function. Pelvic floor muscle strength was significantly improved post-test, but this study found no effect on sexual function.
Forty years after Dr. Kegel’s assertion about sexual arousal enhancing properties of pubococcygeus muscle exercises, Messe and Geer tested Kegel’s hypothesis in their psychophysiological study, in which they asked women to perform vaginal contractions while engaging in sexual fantasy. A second group was asked to engage in sexual fantasy without the contractions, and yet a third group was given the task of vaginal contractions but no sexual fantasy. The results indicated that performing vaginal contractions with sexual fantasy improved arousal and orgasmic ability. Initially, this group made better gains than vaginal contractions alone and fantasizing alone. However, with a second test session one week later, no further gains were noted in the ability of this group to improve sexual arousal or orgasm. Messe and Geer speculated that increased muscle tone may result in increased stimulation of stretch and pressure receptors during intercourse, leading to enhanced arousal and orgasmic potential.
The most interesting finding was reported by an older study done by Roughan, who reported no differences in the groups he studied. Roughan et. al. expected women with orgasm difficulties to improve after 12-week period of pelvic floor strengthening exercises, compared to a group that practiced relaxation and an attention control group. No difference was found between the orgasmic ability of the two groups.
The majority of women studied here had no reported pelvic floor dysfunction. Perhaps, contrary to popular opinion and against the advice of women’s magazines, women with healthy pelvic floors may not benefit from pelvic floor exercises any more than they would from relaxation training, or mindful attention to sexual stimuli.
So, what then, will increase our mojo in bed, you ask? Stay tuned for the next blogs…
Chambless D, Sultan FE, Stern TE, O’Neill C, Garrison S. Jackson A. Effect of pubococcygeal exercise on coital orgasm in women. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1984; 52:114-8
Laan E. Rellini AH. Can we treat anorgasmia in women? The challenge to experiencing pleasure: Sex Relation Ther. 2011:26:329-41
Messe MR, Geer JH. Voluntary vaginal musculature contractions as an enhancer of sexual arousal. Arch Sex Behav. 1985; 14:13-28
Padoa, Anna. Rosenbaum, Talli. 1st edition. 2016. The Overactive Pelvic Floor.
Roughan PA, Kunst L. Do pelvic floor exercises really improve orgasmic potential? J Sex Marital Ther. 1984;7:223-9