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
The following post comes to us from Dee Hartmann, PT, DPT who is the author and instructor of Vulvodynia: Assessment and Treatment. To learn evaluation and treatment techniques for vulvar pain, join Dee in in Houston, TX this March 12-13. Early registration pricing expires soon!
I recently heard a young, vivacious urologist present treatment options for overactive bladder to a group of nursing professionals (SUNA). To my delight as the only PT in the audience, I was pleased that physical therapy was her first line of treatment for this difficult population of chronic pelvic pain patients. As a women’s health PT, we know that chronic vulvar pain suffers experience many of the same dysfunctions, including pelvic floor muscle over-activity.
The physician’s presentation included two very emphatic statements—“physical therapy always hurts” and “no one in this group of patients should ever do Kegel exercises”. She went on to explain that anyone with pelvic floor muscle over activity should only be taught to relax; that “if they were seeing a practitioner who was telling them to do Kegels, they needed to find another PT”. As she’s not a PT, I challenged her on her second comment. I was too annoyed to address the first.
I appreciate that, as a urologist, she may not know that we learned some time ago that rest for chronic muscle tension, like chronic low back, has been proven ineffective. Rather, research suggests that increased mobility and strengthening prove more effective in the long term to decrease pain by restoring normal muscle function. As pelvic floor muscles are voluntary, striated muscles, it only makes sense that the same findings apply. Those who oppose active pelvic floor muscle active exercise suggest that the over-active state of the pelvic floor muscles causes vulvar pain. I agree. However, simply relaxing dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles and expecting them to work effectively seems a bit short-sighted. Normal pelvic floor muscle function is integral to efficient core stability as well as sphincteric control, pelvic visceral support, and sexual function. Why not begin rehab for these ladies with an active exercise program, directed at renewing pelvic floor muscle motor control, with resulting decreased introital pain, improved function (sphincteric , supportive, and sexual), and improved core support?
As for the urologist’s first statement, mark me down as totally opposed. My professional experience suggests the need to replicate familiar vulvar pain and then find abnormal physical findings in the trunk, hips, viscera, and pelvis that are contributory. Rather than utilizing any treatment that causes additional pain, addressing associated abnormal findings that immediately decrease pelvic floor muscle resting tone and palpated vulvar pain, seems much more productive.
 Waddell G. "Simple low back pain: rest or active exercise?" Ann Rheum Dis 1993;52:317.
Pelvic Floor Muscles: To Strengthen or Not to Strengthen?
If that is the question, then who should provide the answer? As I was reading yet another article about how women should strengthen the pelvic floor muscles to have a better orgasm, I can't help but think about the unfortunate women for whom this is a bad idea. Yes, having healthy awareness of and strength in the pelvic floor muscles is important for healthy sexual function, but healthy muscles and building of awareness is challenging to achieve from viewing a few images.
If you clicked on the link above about the article in question, you will see that the recommendation is for activating the pelvic floor muscles and engaging in pelvic strengthening exercises for up to a couple minutes per exercise, with several exercises prescribed up to 2x/day for a period of weeks. And that if you visualize stopping the flow of urine, you will surely feel the muscles activate. Based on clinical experience, we know that this is not the case for most women. One verbal cue may not be enough. The woman may not feel the muscle activation. She may have tight, painful pelvic muscles that are limiting healthy sexual function. These are issues that pelvic rehab providers face on a daily basis: when and how to strengthen the muscles.
Rhonda Kotarinos and Mary Pat Fitzgerald did the world of pelvic rehab an immense good with their promotion of the concept of the "short pelvic floor." If a patient presents with pelvic muscle tension, shortening of the muscle, and poor ability to generate a contraction, a relaxation phase, or a bearing down of the pelvic muscles, how in the world will trying to tighten those overactive muscles bring progress? This concept is further described in a 2012 article from the Mayo Clinic by Dr. Faubion and colleagues. The article explains the cluster of symptoms commonly seen with non-relaxing pelvic floor muscles including pain and dysfunction in bowel, bladder, and sexual function. Medical providers and rehab clinicians should look for this cluster of symptoms and combine this knowledge with a pelvic muscle assessment to decide if pelvic muscle strengthening is warranted.
If this has not been a part of your current practice, please consider ruling out a shortened or non-relaxing pelvic floor prior to suggesting any "Kegels" or pelvic muscle strengthening. If you are well aware of this issue, then it is our responsibility and opportunity to educate the public and the medical community to STOP! strengthening when it is not appropriate. The way I often explain this to patients or students is to pretend that a patient has walked in to the clinic with the shoulders elevated maximally, complaining of headaches or shoulder dysfunction. Then I say, "Great! Let's hit the weights- you just need to strengthen your upper traps." This always gets a giggle or a smirk, but the point is this: that is exactly what providers are doing to patients who walk in with bowel, bladder, pain, or sexual dysfunction when the announcement is made that "you just need to do your Kegels."
While we do not want to villainize Kegels or strengthening of the pelvic muscles, we do want our colleagues, our patients, and the valued referring providers to know that there is way more to pelvic health than strengthening. The abundance of bad advice available to our patients may leave them in worse condition and with less hope about finding relief. While well-intentioned, advice that only describes strengthening as the cure is misleading and potentially harmful.