Perimenopausal pelvic health issues are, for many of us, some of the most common issues that we see in the women that we work with. Urinary incontinence is one of the most important issues for peri- and postmenopausal women. In Melville’s study1 of U.S. women, half of the participants between the ages of 50 and 90 experienced urine leakage every month. Zhu’s 2008 study2 looked at the risk factors for SUI - Multiple vaginal deliveries, Age/postmenopausal status, Chronic pelvic pain, Obesity, lack of exercise, constipation, and hypertension. But what is not often (enough) looked at in the research, is the link between urinary dysfunction and sexual dysfunction – usually because questions aren’t asked or assumptions are made. In Mestre et al’s 2015 paper3, they write ‘…Integrating sexual health in clinical practice is important. In women with pelvic floor disorders, the evaluation of the anatomical defects, lower urinary tract function and the anorectal function often receives more attention than sexual function.’
But are they linked?
In Moller’s exploration of this topic, they report that lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) have a profound impact on women’s physical, social, and sexual wellbeing. Unsurprisingly (to pelvic rehab specialists at least!), they found that the LUTS are likely to affect sexual activity. Conversely, sexual activity may affect the occurrence of LUTS. The aims of the Moller study were to elucidate to which extent LUTS affect sexual function and to which extent sexual function affect LUTS in an unselected population of middle-aged women in 1 year. A questionnaire was sent to 4,000 unselected women aged 40–60 years. Compared to women having sexual relationship, a statistically significant 3 to 6 fold higher prevalence of LUTS was observed in women with no sexual relationship. In women who ceased sexual relationship an increase in the de novo occurrence of most LUTS was observed. In women who resumed sexual relationship a decrease in LUTS was observed. In women whose sexual activity was unchanged no change in the occurrence of LUTS. So they rightfully concluded ‘…sexual inactivity may lead to LUTS and vice versa.’
In my Menopause course, we will explore the range of perimenopausal pelvic health issues that many women face and their inter-related nature – not just with each other but also how orthopaedic, endocrine and gastro-intestinal health issues influence pelvic health and wellness. Interested in learning more? Come and join the conversation in California in February 2018!
1. Melville JL, et al. Urinary incontinence in US women: a population-based study. Arch Intern Med 2005;165(5):537-42 - See more at: http://www.nursingcenter.com/lnc/JournalArticle?Article_ID=698029#sthash.cm8A90tS.dpuf
2. Zhu L1, Lang J, Wang H, Han S, Huang J. Menopause. 2008 May-Jun;15(3):566-9. The prevalence of and potential risk factors for female urinary incontinence in Beijing, China
3. Mestre M, Lleberia J, Pubill J, Espuña-Pons M Actas Urol Esp. 2015 Apr;39(3):175-82. Epub 2014 Aug 28. Questionnaires in the assessment of sexual function in women with urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse.
One of my dear patients was recently diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos sydrome (EDS). The diagnosis brought a sense of relief for sweet Katie who for years struggled with numerous health problems and was often misunderstood and under cared for by the medical community. Katie was referred to me 2 years ago at 28 for pelvic pain, endometriosis and IC. Upon exam we also discovered a significant elimination disorder and paradoxical elimination. Katie regularly timed her elimination and was spending at times up to 2 hours trying to empty her bowels. As we worked together we uncovered bilateral hip dysplasia, left hip labral tear, ilioinguinal and pudendal neruralgia and POTS (Postural Orthostatic Hypotension Syndrome). Katie already had a history of anxiety and depression but managed well with good family and friend support. When the diagnosis of EDS came, she finally felt like she had an explanation for why her body is like it is. This brought great relief as well as the knowledge that her condition was genetic and her conditions needed to be managed as best as possible to give her the most function, but would likely never be fully resolved.
In her book "A Guide to Living with Ehler's Danlos Syndrome" Isobel Knight does a beautiful job outlining the various genetic subtypes of Ehlers Danlos but also highlighting the fact that EDS hypermobility type (Type III) does not just affect the connective tissue in the musculoskeletal sytem leading to joint instability and hypermoblity, muscle tears, dislocations, subluxations, hip dysplasia and flat feet. EDS can also affect the body's systemic collagen leading to increased risk for endometriosis, POTS, Renauds, bladder problems, fibromyalgia, headaches, restless legs, ashtma, consitpation, bloatedness, prolapse, IBS symptoms, anxiety, depression and learning difficulties. She notes that some people have only a few of these systemic symptoms while others may be more affected. Per Isobel: "it is important that all symptoms are treated seriously and not ridiculed and that the appropriate medical support is given to them when necessary."
It seems that EDS is becoming more widely recognized. As rehabilitation specialists we should be alert to problems stemming from joint hypermobility when we notice how our patients position themselves. Often legs are curled up or double crossed. Upon questioning we might find that the patient has a history of being "double jointed" or was able to do "party tricks" with their bodies. The Bighton scale is a test of joint hypermobility which we should all be familiar with. It is also important to note that a patient may have hypermobility without having EDS, and that EDS is usually associated with pain. A rheumatologist, or in Katie's case a geneticist, can help confirm a suspected EDS diagnosis.
If you have a patient with hypermobliiy or with EDS, know that their ability to know where their body is in space is limited as their joints have much more range of motion than normal. The proprioceptors do not fire well at mid range and the patient will have to be trained to become accustomed to neutral joint positions. This was really painful for Katie and it took a huge mental and physical effort. She is getting stronger now and it is becoming easier to achieve. Stretching and soft tissue massage can feel really good when your muscles have to work so hard to maintain your joints in healthy positions. Patients should be instructed to not stretch into end range and also not "hang out" on their ligaments. Some patients may have to begin just with isometrics. I used Sara Meeks' program for safe and effective floor exercise with Katie. The floor gave her support while she strengthened her core muscles. Then she was able to progress to seated and seated on a ball as well as standing exercises. She loves the body blade! Yoga, Pilates, exercise in water can be effective for strength, propriception and movement reeducation. Mirrors are helpful for increasing position sense.
It is also helpful to note that even patients with EDS may be hypermobile in some joints and hypomobile in others. Isobel reports that her SI joints were extremely unstable while her thoracic spine was very rigid to the point that her lung capacity was affected. Having her therapist work on the hypomobility and doing breath work was life changing.
As pelvic health therapists and rehabilitation providers we may be the first professional to suspect EDS in a patient. There is a great deal that we and the greater medical and holistic community can do to help patients with EDS lead lives with less pain and dysfunction.
Faculty member Lila Bartkowski- Abbate PT, DPT, MS, OCS, WCS, PRPC teaches the Bowel Pathology, Function, Dysfunction and the Pelvic Floor course for Herman & Wallace. Join her in Tampa on April 2-3, or one of the other two events currently open for registration.
Constipation, an often under reported health issue, afflicts about 30% of Americans. ¹ The diagnosis of chronic constipation may seem like a simple concept, however the etiology of chronic constipation presents itself in many different forms. Dyssynergic defecation is one of many factors that can lead to a presentation of chronic constipation in a patient. Dyssynergic defecation or “paradoxical contraction” occurs when the muscles of the abdominals, puborectalis sling, and external anal sphincter function inappropriately while attempting a bowel movement. ² The lack of coordination of these muscles results in a contraction versus a lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles with baring down. Dyssynergic defecation is different than a structural issue such as a rectocele or hemorrhoids causing the inability to pass stool effectively or constipation due to slow colon transit time or pathological disease. Making the diagnosis of dyssynergic defecation by symptoms alone is often not reliable secondary to overlap of similar symptoms with chronic constipation due to factors such as a structural issue, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or irritable bowel disease (IBD). The diagnosis of dyssynergic defecation can be difficult and is often made through physiologic testing such as balloon expulsion testing or MRI with defecography. ² However, physical therapists can often manually feel that a paradoxical contraction is happening when asking a patient to bare down on evaluation.
Patients with dyssynergic defecation may present to pelvic floor physical therapy with complaints of: ¹ ²
Physical Therapists specializing in pelvic floor rehab can be a valuable part of the medical team with treating these patients. Biofeedback training by physical therapists has been shown to decrease anorectal related constipation symptoms and abdominal symptoms in patients with dyssynergic defecation. In a sample of 77 patients with dyssynergic defecation, physical therapists provided biofeedback training for 6-8 weeks that included manual and verbal feedback, surface EMG, exercises using a rectal catheter, rectal ballooning to improve rectal sensory abnormalities, ultrasound, pelvic floor and abdominal massage, electrical stimulation if needed, and core strengthening and stretching to improve the patients’ maladaptive habits while attempting to pass a bowel movement. Significant decreases were seen on all three domains (abdominal, rectal, and stool) on the PAC-SYM (Patient Assessment of Constipation) questionnaire post biofeedback training. ² It is noteworthy that 74% of these patients presented to the clinic with complaints of abdominal symptoms such as bloating, pain, discomfort, and cramping.
Knowing how to effectively treat these patients and ask the right questions is valuable in the scheme of pelvic floor rehab secondary to overlapping symptoms of different causes of chronic constipation. Physical therapists are able to provide these patients with conservative treatment that can effectively improve or eliminate their problem, recognize dyssynergic defecation as a possible differential diagnosis, and refer to the appropriate medical professional for further testing. Recognizing and treating dyssynergic defecation is something physical therapists will learn how to become effective at in the upcoming Herman and Wallace Course: Bowel Pathology, Function, Dysfunction & the Pelvic Floor April 2-3 in Tampa, FL and October 8-9 in Fairfield, CA.
1. Sahin M, Dogan I, Cengiz M et al. (2015). The impact of anorectal biofeedback therapy on quality of life of patients with dyssynergic defecation. Turk J Gastroenterol. 26(2):140-144
2. Baker J, Eswaran S, Saad R, et al. (2015). Abdominal symptoms are common and benefit from biofeedback therapy in patients with dyssynergic defecation. Clin Transl Gastroenterol. 30(6)e105. doi: 10.1038/ctg.2015.3
As a child, I remember my grandmother rubbing my lower back to help me pass my stubborn stool, a problem which landed me in the hospital twice before I turned 10. Decades later, after the birth of my first baby, I had a grade III perineal tear that made me afraid I would never be able to control my stool from passing. At the time of each situation, I had no idea how many people of all ages experience the two extremes of bowel dysfunction. Thankfully, for patients struggling with either issue, whether it is chronic constipation or fecal incontinence, healthcare practitioners are becoming knowledgeable in how to treat both effectively through classes such as the Herman & Wallace course, “Bowel Pathology, Function, Dysfunction & the Pelvic Floor.”
In 2014, Kelly Scott, MD, authored an article entitled, “Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation in the Treatment of Fecal Incontinence.” She reviews the current literature and notes this area of study lacks high quality randomized controlled trials, and further research is needed to provide evidence on the efficacy of different treatment protocols. Up to 24% of the adult population has been shown to experience fecal incontinence. Under the umbrella of pelvic floor rehabilitation lies pelvic floor muscle training, biofeedback, rectal balloon catheters for volumetric training, external electrical stimulation, and behavioral bowel retraining. The goals of various biofeedback methods include the following: provide endurance training specifically for the anal sphincter and pelvic floor; improve rectal sensitivity and compliance; and, increase coordination and sensory discrimination of the anal sphincter. Overall, the success rate of pelvic floor rehabilitation for fecal incontinence in most of the studies is 50% to 80%, and it is considered safe as well as effective.
On the other end of the spectrum, Vazquez Roque and Bouras (2015) published an article regarding management of chronic constipation. Chronic constipation (CC) in the general population has a prevalence of 20%, and the elderly population has a higher rate than the younger population. Chronic constipation is commonly treated with stool softeners, fiber supplements, laxatives, and secretagogues. However, as in all areas of healthcare, a thorough examination needs to be performed to assess the source of the problem. Determining whether a patient exhibits slow transit constipation or a true pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) via blood work, rectal exam, and appropriate PFD tests is essential to provide the appropriate treatment. When the CC culprit is dysfunction of the pelvic floor, clinical trials have proven the efficacy of pelvic floor rehabilitation and biofeedback, making them optimal treatments.
When research indicates a particular type of rehabilitation is effective for treating a wide scope of issues in an area of the body, learning how and when to implement the techniques is paramount for a well-rounded practitioner. Most of us do not dream of treating chronic constipation or fecal incontinence; but, as we mature in our clinical practice, the spectrum of dysfunctions we discover through diagnostic testing and experience grows. Continuing education in previously unexplored territories can only expand the population to whom we provide relief.
Scott, K. M. (2014). Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation in the Treatment of Fecal Incontinence. Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, 27(3), 99–105.
Vazquez Roque, M., & Bouras, E. P. (2015). Epidemiology and management of chronic constipation in elderly patients. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 10, 919–930.