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Pessary Use and Defecatory Dysfunction

After completing an intake on a patient and learning that her history of constipation started about 3 years ago with insidious onset, the story wasn’t really making any sense of how or why this started. Yes, she was menopausal. Yes, she seemed to be eating fiber and drinking water. Yes, she got a bowel movement urge daily, but her bowel movements felt incomplete. Yes, she was a little older, using Estrace cream, and her mobility had slowed down, but nothing seemed to make sense in the story that was leading me to believe it was an emptying problem or a stool consistency issue. She had a bowel movement urge, she could empty, but it was incomplete.

So, after explaining about physical therapy, the muscle problems involved and what we do here, it led us to the physical examination portion. I explained that we check both the vaginal and rectal pelvic floor muscle compartments to determine rectal fullness internally, check for a rectocele, check for muscle lengthening (excursion) and shortening (contraction). She was on board and desperate to find an answer. She was eager for me to help her find an answer to her emptying problem that she had for the last 3 years.

Upon entering her vaginal canal slowly, I start to move around and felt a ring of plastic. “Are you wearing a pessary?” I asked. “Pessary? Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you about that!”, she exclaimed. “How long have you been using it?” I asked. “About 3 years…” she answered.

I sent her back to the urogynecologist to get fit for another type of pessary as her muscle examination proved to be negative. Since that time, I have added the question “Do you wear a pessary?” as part of the constipation intake questions. Pessary use creates the ability for a patient to forgo or to extend their time for a surgical intervention due to pelvic organ prolapse.

Looking at the dynamics of the pessary, it may block bowel movement emptying. The recent study by Dengle, et al, published in the October 2018 in the International Urogynecological Journal confirms this anecdotal, clinical finding. The article, Defecatory Dysfunction and Other Clinical Variables Are Predictors of Pessary Discontinuation, looked at reasons for discontinuation of pessary use from April 2014 to January 2017 and did a retrospective chart review on a selected 1071 women. Incomplete defecation had the largest association with pessary discontinuation.

While there are over 20 sizes of pessaries on the market, patients will discontinue use without having a better conversation with their practitioner. From a PT perspective, when the patient comes in with bowel emptying issues, if no muscle dysfunction is found, it needs to be brought to the provider’s attention. Our role in educating the patient on the options that are available and creating this dialogue can prove to be very helpful in those suffering from pelvic organ prolapse and defecatory dysfunction.


Dengler, EG et al. "Defecatory dysfunction and other clinical variables are predictors of pessary discontinuation." Int Urogynecol J. 2018 Oct 20. doi: 10.1007/s00192-018-3777-1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30343377

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Pelvic Health for Athletes

When I bring up the topic of pelvic floor dysfunction in athletes, stress urinary incontinence (SUI) is usually the first aspect of pelvic health that springs to mind – and rightly so, as professional sport is one of the risk factors for stress urinary incontinence Poswiata et al 2014. The majority of studies show that the average prevalence of urinary incontinence across all sports is 50%, with SUI being the most common lower urinary tract symptom. Athletes are constantly subject to repeated sudden & considerable rises in intra-abdominal pressure: e.g. heel striking, jumping, landing, dismounting and racquet loading.

What’s less often discussed is the topic of gastrointestinal dysfunction in athletes. Anal incontinence in athletes is not well documented, although a study from Vitton et al in 2011 found a higher prevalence than in age matched controls (conversely a study by Bo & Braekken in 2007 found no incidence). More recently, Nygaard reported earlier this year (2016) that young women participating in high-intensity activity are more likely to report anal incontinence than less active women.

A presentation by Colleen Fitzgerald, MD at the American Urogynecologic Society meeting in 2014 highlighted the multifaceted nature of pelvic floor dysfunction in female athletes, specifically in this case, triathletes. The study found that one in three female triathletes suffers from a pelvic floor disorder such as urinary incontinence, bowel incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. One in four had one component of the "female athlete triad", a condition characterized by decreased energy, menstrual irregularities and abnormal bone density from excessive exercise and inadequate nutrition. Researchers surveyed 311 women for this study with a median age range of 35 – 44. These women were involved with triathlete groups and most (82 percent) were training for a triathlon at the time of the survey. On average, survey participants ran 3.7 days a week, biked 2.9 days a week and swam 2.4 days a week.

Of those who reported pelvic floor disorder symptoms, 16% had urgency urinary incontinence, 37.4% had stress urinary incontinence, 28% had bowel incontinence and 5% had pelvic organ prolapse. Training mileage and intensity were not associated with pelvic floor disorder symptoms. 22% of those surveyed screened positive for disordered eating, 24% had menstrual irregularities and 29% demonstrated abnormal bone strength. With direct access becoming a reality for many of us, we must acknowledge the need for specific questioning when it comes to pelvic health issues, as well as the ability to recognise signs and symptoms of the female athlete triad in our patients.

Want to learn more about pelvic health for athletes? Join me in beautiful Arlington this November 5-6 at The Athlete and the Pelvic Floor!


J Hum Kinet. 2014 Dec 9; 44: 91–96 Published online 2014 Dec 30. doi:10.2478/hukin-2014-0114 PMCID: PMC4327384. Prevalence of Stress Urinary Incontinence in Elite Female Endurance Athlete Anna Poświata, Teresa Socha and Józef Opara1
J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2011 May;20(5):757-63. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2010.2454. Epub 2011 Apr 18. Impact of high-level sport practice on anal incontinence in a healthy young female population. Vitton V, Baumstarck-Barrau K, Brardjanian S, Caballe I, Bouvier M, Grimaud JC.
Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016 Feb;214(2):164-71. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2015.08.067. Epub 2015 Sep 6. Physical activity and the pelvic floor. Nygaard IE, Shaw JM.

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Vitamin D Deficits: Impacting the Pelvic Floor

Appropriate sun exposure and/or daily supplements provide our bodies with sufficient amounts of Vitamin D. I would venture to guess almost every one of the patients I treated in Seattle had a deficiency of Vitamin D if they were not taking a supplement. Running outside year round has always kept my skin slightly tan and my levels of Vitamin D healthy; however, when I was pregnant in the Pacific Northwest, I had to supplement my diet with Vitamin D, which was a first for this East Coast beach girl. The benefit of Vitamin D has spread beyond just bone health, with studies showing its impact on pelvic floor function.

Parker-Autry et al., (2012) published a study discerning the Vitamin D levels in women who already presented with pelvic floor dysfunction versus “normal” gynecological patients. The retrospective study involved a chart review of 394 women who completed the Colorectal Anal Distress Inventory (CRADI)-8 and the Incontinence Impact Questionnaire (IIQ-7). These women all had a total serum 25-hydroxy Vitamin D [25(OH)D] drawn within one year of their gynecological visit. The authors defined a serum 25(OH)D of <15ng/ml as Vitamin D deficient, between 15-29ng/ml as Vitamin D insufficient, and >30ng/ml as Vitamin D sufficient. In the pelvic floor disorder group comprised of 268 women, 51% were found Vitamin D insufficient, 13% of whom were deficient. The CRADI-8 and IIQ-7 scores were noted as higher among the Vitamin D insufficient women. Overall, the mean 25(OH)D levels in the women without pelvic floor issues were higher than those who presented with pelvic floor disorder symptoms.

Another case-control study in 2014 by Parker-Autry et al., focused on the association between Vitamin D deficiency and fecal incontinence. They considered 31 women with fecal incontinence versus a control group of 81 women without any pelvic floor symptoms, looking at serum Vitamin D levels. The women with fecal incontinence had a mean serum Vitamin D level of 29.2±12.3 ng/ml (insufficient/deficient), while the control group had a higher mean level of 35±14.1 ng/ml (sufficient). The women completed the Modified Manchester Health Questionnaire and the Fecal Incontinence Severity Index, and women with deficient Vitamin D scored higher on the questionnaire, indicating fecal incontinence as a burden on quality of life. The severity scores were higher for Vitamin D deficient women, but there was not a statistically significant difference between the groups.  Once again, the pelvic floor disorder and Vitamin D deficiency correlation prevailed in this study.

An even more recent study looked at postmenopausal women and Vitamin D deficiency (Navaneethan et al., 2015). This prospective case control study involved 120 postmenopausal women, 51 of whom had pelvic floor disorders. The serum 25-hydroxy Vitamin D levels were obtained, and the results revealed a deficiency in those women with pelvic floor dysfunction. Vitamin D levels were found to be significantly lower in women who were 5 years or more into menopause. Overall, Vitamin D was deemed a worthy factor to consider in the pelvic floor disorder population as well as in postmenopausal women.

Taking time to talk to patients about their lifestyle, daily supplements, and diet can often shed light on their ability to benefit from our treatments. If a Vitamin D deficiency sounds possible, discuss current research with them and suggest they get their serum Vitamin D levels checked. Don’t underestimate the power of a little sunshine – it just might have a positive impact on pelvic floor health.


Parker-Autry, C. Y., Markland, A. D., Ballard, A. C., Downs-Gunn, D., & Richter, H. E. (2012). Vitamin D Status in Women with Pelvic Floor Disorder Symptoms. International Urogynecology Journal, 23(12), 1699–1705. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00192-012-1700-8
Parker-Autry, C. Y., Gleason, J. L., Griffin, R. L., Markland, A., & Richter, H. E. (2014). VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY IS ASSOCIATED WITH INCREASED FECAL INCONTINENCE SYMPTOMS. International Urogynecology Journal, 25(11), 1483–1489. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00192-014-2389-7
Navaneethan, P. R., Kekre, A., Jacob, K. S., & Varghese, L. (2015). Vitamin D deficiency in postmenopausal women with pelvic floor disorders. Journal of Mid-Life Health, 6(2), 66–69. http://doi.org/10.4103/0976-7800.158948

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