Faculty member Christine Stewart, PT, CMPT began her career specializing in orthopedics and manual therapy and became interested in women’s health after the birth of her second child. Christine joined Olathe Health in 2010 to further focus on women’s health and obtain her CMPT from the North American Institute of Manual Therapy. She also went through Diane Lee's integrated systems model in 2018. Her course, Menopause Transitions and Pelvic Rehab is designed for the clinician that wants to understand the multitude of changes that are experienced in the menopause transition and how they affect the aging process.
Menopause. The M-word, the second puberty, is the final frontier of a hormonal roller coaster when there are twelve consecutive months with no menstruation. A time of celebration, right? No more cramps, hygiene products, menstrual cups, or moodiness – FREEDOM! Not so fast my fellow clinician!
The body goes through some serious, hormonal loop-the-loops leading up to the cessation of ovulation. Perimenopause is the stretch leading up to the final cycle and this stretch can feel like yoga on steroids. It can last TEN years, not including symptoms experienced after the transition takes place. Changes in cycle length, flow, anovulation, and yes, even ovulating twice are all stages of perimenopause. (Hale et al., 2009). These changes translate into symptoms: sleeplessness, brain fog, anxiety, palpitations, fatigue, painful intercourse, and joint stiffness are just a few things that can be experienced during this time (Lewis, 2021).
This transition can begin for patients during their mid-thirties, more commonly it begins during their forties, but eventually, all people that ovulate will experience it. For some, perimenopause can be much more challenging than after menopause. The perimenopause hormone guessing game begins. Some months, progesterone makes an appearance. The next month, mostly estrogen, and some months - neither are around very much at all. If there is an abrupt change in ovulation, such as with a complete hysterectomy, the symptoms will most likely be intensified due to the abrupt loss of hormones. (Gunter, 2020). Dealing with the changes of menopause can be challenging in a variety of ways (like a two-year-old wailing for a candy bar in the checkout line), but many things can help ease this transition.
With fluctuating hormones also comes changes to many systems in the body. Estrogen receptors are everywhere, and when hormone levels are changing, so does the body’s internal workings. Glucose metabolism, bone physiology, brain, and urogenital function are just some of the systems affected (Shifren et al., 2014). Perimenopause is not just a time of altered periods. It is also a critical time in a person’s health where an increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and bone loss can begin (Lewis 2021).
Preparing for menopause should be on our radar for patients in their twenties, thirties, and early forties before the process starts. Establishing healthy habits earlier instead of later can help for a more successful transition, however, it is never too late! Knowing the signs and symptoms of this phase can help us guide patients and ourselves to a better understanding of what is happening with the body in this adaptation. We can make recommendations on lifestyle, exercise, and meditation, as well as refer them to other knowledgeable providers when needed.
I have had countless patients sent to me for urinary frequency, incontinence, or painful intercourse who are in this transition, but no one has talked to them about what is happening to their bodies. You may be thinking to yourself, these patients have doctors. Why aren’t they getting the information from their physician? After all, these providers have had years of training. The reality is sometimes doctors do not receive the necessary education to treat menopausal patients.
In a survey of postgraduate trainees in internal medicine, family medicine, and obstetrics/gynecology, 90% felt unprepared to manage women experiencing menopause (Reid, 2021). Insert jaw drop here. As pelvic health providers, we can help to fill this knowledge gap and be a conduit to explaining the process. We can empower patients with education, treatments, and recommendations to flourish in this critical phase of life.
The menopause transition can be a time of great uncertainty. Not only are patients’ lives transforming as their children grow and their parents age, but their bodies are changing as well. We can ease their burden in this period of adaptation. By calming their fears through education, we can assure them that indeed, they are not losing their minds.
Knowledge is power, and I am all in when it comes to empowering patients. They can learn that menopause is a phase and does not define who they are as a person. It is possible to survive and come out on the other side still thriving, while learning how to cope during the process. There is hope!
Menopause Transitions and Pelvic Rehab is an excellent opportunity to understand the physiological consequences to the body as hormones decline, in order to assist our patients in lifestyle habits for successful aging. Lecture topics include cardiovascular changes, metabolic syndrome, bone loss and sarcopenia, neurological changes (headache, brain fog, sleeplessness), Alzheimer’s risk, urogenital changes, as well as symptoms and treatment options. These include hormone replacement, non-hormonal options, dietary choices, and exercise considerations.Menopause Transitions and Pelvic Rehab course dates include April 9-10th and August 27-28th.
A question that often comes up in conversation around menopause is that of pelvic health – the effects on bladder, bowel or sexual health…what works, what’s safe, what’s not? Is hormone therapy better, worse or the same in terms of efficacy when compared to pelvic rehab? Do we have a role here?
An awareness of pelvic health issues that arise at menopause was explored in Oskay’s 2005 paper ‘A study on urogenital complaints of postmenopausal women aged 50 and over’ stating ‘…Urinary incontinence and sexual problems, particularly decline in sexual desire, are widespread among postmenopausal women. Frequent urinary tract infections, obesity, chronic constipation and other chronic illnesses seem to be the predictors of UI.’
Moller’s 2006 paper explored the link between LUTS (Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms) and sexual activity at midlife: the paper discussed how lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) have a profound impact on women’s physical, social, and sexual well being, and confirmed that LUTS are likely to affect sexual activity. However, they also found that conversely, sexual activity may affect the occurrence of LUTS – in their study a questionnaire was sent to 4,000 unselected women aged 40–60 years, and they found that 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. They also found that women who ceased sexual relationship an increase in the de novo occurrence of most LUTS was observed, concluding that ‘…sexual inactivity may lead to LUTS and vice versa’.
So, who advises women going through menopause about issues such as sexual ergonomics, the use of lubricants or moisturisers, or provide a discussion about the benefits of local topical estrogen? As well as providing a skillset that includes orthopaedic assessment to rule out any musculo-skeletal influences that could be a driver for sexual dysfunction? That would be the pelvic rehab specialist clinician! Tosun et al asked the question ‘Do stages of menopause affect the outcomes of pelvic floor muscle training?’ and the answer in this and other papers was yes; with the research comparing pelvic rehab vs hormone therapy vs a combination approach of pelvic rehab and topical estrogen providing the best outcomes. Nygaard’s paper looked at the ‘Impact of menopausal status on the outcome of pelvic floor physiotherapy in women with urinary incontinence’ and concluded that : ‘…(both pre and postmenopausal women) benefit from motor learning strategies and adopt functional training to improve their urinary symptoms in similar ways, irrespective of hormonal status or HRT and BMI category’.
We must also factor in some of the other health concerns that pelvic health can impact at midlife for women – Brown et al asked the question ‘Urinary incontinence: does it increase risk for falls and fractures?’ They answered their question by concluding that ‘‘… urge incontinence was associated independently with an increased risk of falls and non-spine, nontraumatic fractures in older women. Urinary frequency, nocturia, and rushing to the bathroom to avoid urge incontinent episodes most likely increase the risk of falling, which then results in fractures. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment of urge incontinence may decrease the risk of fracture.’
If you are interested in learning more about pelvic health, sexual function and bone health at Menopause, consider attending Menopause Rehabilitation and Symptom Management.
Sexual activity and lower urinary tract symptoms’ Møller LA1, Lose G. Int Urogynecol J Pelvic Floor Dysfunct. 2006 Jan;17(1):18-21. Epub 2005 Jul 29.
A study on urogenital complaints of postmenopausal women aged 50 and over. Oskay UY1, Beji NK, Yalcin O. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2005 Jan;84(1):72-8.
Do stages of menopause affect the outcomes of pelvic floor muscle training? Tosun ÖÇ1, Mutlu EK, Tosun G, Ergenoğlu AM, Yeniel AÖ, Malkoç M, Aşkar N, İtil İM. Menopause. 2015 Feb;22(2):175-84. doi: 10.1097/GME.0000000000000278.
‘Impact of menopausal status on the outcome of pelvic floor physiotherapy in women with urinary incontinence.’ Nygaard CC1, Betschart C, Hafez AA, Lewis E, Chasiotis I, Doumouchtsis SK. Int Urogynecol J. 2013 Dec;24(12):2071-6. doi: 10.1007/s00192-013-2179-7. Epub 2013 Jul 17
The new year is here and with it, lots of motivational posting about exercise and weight loss…but how is this desire for ‘new year, new you’ affecting peri-menopausal women with urinary dysfunction? It has been established that the lower urinary tract is sensitive to the effects of estrogen, sharing a common embryological origin with the female genital tract, the urogenital sinus. Urge urinary incontinence is more prevalent after the menopause, and the peak prevalence of stress incontinence occurs around the time of the menopause (Quinn et al 2009). Zhu et al looked at the risk factors for urinary incontinence in women and found that some of the main contributors include peri/post-menopausal status, constipation and central obesity (women's waist circumference, >/=80 cm) along with vaginal delivery/multiparity.
Could weight loss directly impact urinary incontinence in menopausal women? In a word – yes. ‘Weight reduction is an effective treatment for overweight and obese women with UI. Weight loss of 5% to 10% has an efficacy similar to that of other nonsurgical treatments and should be considered a first line therapy for incontinence’ (Subak et al 2005) But do these benefits last? Again – yes! ‘Weight loss intervention reduced the frequency of stress incontinence episodes through 12 months and improved patient satisfaction with changes in incontinence through 18 months. Improving weight loss maintenance may provide longer term benefits for urinary incontinence.’ (Wing et al 2010)
The other major health issues facing women at midlife include an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes and Bone Health problems – all of which are responsive to lifestyle interventions, particularly exercise and stress management. In their paper looking at lifestyle weight loss interventions, Franz et al found that ‘…a weight loss of >5% appears necessary for beneficial effects on HbA1c, lipids, and blood pressure. Achieving this level of weight loss requires intense interventions, including energy restriction, regular physical activity, and frequent contact with health professionals’. 5% weight loss is the same amount of weight loss necessary to provide significant benefits for urinary incontinence at midlife.
Successful weight management depends on nutritional intake, exercise and psychosocial considerations such as stress management, but for the menopausal woman, hormonal balance can also have an effect on not only bladder and bowel dysfunction but changing metabolic rates, thyroid issues and altered weight distribution patterns. As pelvic rehab therapists, we are all aware that pelvic health issues can be a barrier to exercise participation but sensitive awareness of the other particular challenges facing midlife women can make the difference in developing a beneficial therapeutic alliance and a journey back to optimal health. If you would like to explore the topics surrounding optimal health at menopause, why not join me in California in February?
Climacteric. 2009 Apr;12(2):106-13. ‘The effects of hormones on urinary incontinence in postmenopausal women.’ Quinn SD, Domoney C. Menopause. 2009 Jul-Aug;16(4):831-6. The epidemiological study of women with urinary incontinence and risk factors for stress urinary incontinence in China’ Zhu L, Lang J, Liu C, Han S, Huang J, Li X. J Urol. 2005 Jul;174(1):190-5. Weight loss: a novel and effective treatment for urinary incontinence’ Subak LL, Whitcomb E, Shen H, Saxton J, Vittinghoff E, Brown JS. J Urol. 2010 Sep;184(3):1005-10. Effect of weight loss on urinary incontinence in overweight and obese women: results at 12 and 18 months Wing RR, West DS, Grady D, Creasman JM, Richter HE, Myers D, Burgio KL, Franklin F, Gorin AA, Vittinghoff E, Macer J, Kusek JW, Subak LL; Program to Reduce Incontinence by Diet and Exercise Group. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015 Sep;115(9):1447-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.02.031. Epub 2015 Apr 29. Lifestyle weight-loss intervention outcomes in overweight and obese adults with type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Franz MJ, Boucher JL, Rutten-Ramos S, VanWormer JJ. Lean, M, & Lara, J & O Hill, J (2007) Strategies for preventing obesity. In: Sattar, N & Lean, M (eds.) ABC of Obesity. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.
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 greatest nemeses when I was racing at 30 years of age was a woman in her 50’s. Although I hated losing to her, I was always inspired by her speed at her age. She motivated me to continue training hard, realizing my fastest days could be yet to come. As I now race in the “master’s” category in my 40’s, I still find myself crossing the line behind an older competitor occasionally. Research shows I should take heart and keep in step with females who continue to move their bodies beyond menopause.
Mazurek et al., (2017) studied how organized physical activity among post-menopausal women could reduce cardiovascular risk. The study included 35 sedentary women aged 64.7 ± 7.7 years who had no serious health issues. They all participated in the Active Leisure Time Programme (ALTP) 3 times per day for 40–75 minute sessions for 2 weeks, including 39 physical activities. Exercise intensity stayed within 40–60% of maximal HR, and ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) on the Borg scale stayed between 8 and 15 points. This exercise training was followed by 3 months of the Prevent Falls in the Elderly Programme (PFEP), which is a general fitness exercise program to prevent falls in the elderly. Health status was measured at baseline, 2 weeks into the program, and after 3 months. The results showed significant reductions in central obesity, which increased the exercise and aerobic capacity of the subjects and improved lipid profiles. A significant reduction also occurred in the absolute 10-year risk of death from cardiac complications. The authors concluded these exercise programs could be effective in preventing primary and secondary cardiovascular disease in the >55 years old female population.
Nyberg et al., (2016) took a physiological look at exercise training on the vascular function of pre- and postmenopausal women, studying the prostanoid system. Prostanoids are vasoconstrictors, and prostacyclins are vasodilators. The loss of estrogen in menopause affects the ability of the vasodilators to function properly or even be produced, thus contributing to vascular decline. The authors checked the vasodilator response to an intra-arterial fusion of a prostacyclin analog epoprostenol as well as acetylocholine in 20 premenopausal and 16 early postmenopausal women before and after a 12-week exercise program. Pre-exercise, the postmenopausal women had a reduced vasodilator response. The women also received infusion of ketorolac (an inhibitor of cyclooxygenase) along with acetylcholine, creating a vasoconstriction effect, and the vascular response was reduced in both groups. The infusions and analyses were performed again after 12 weeks of exercise training, and the exercise training increased the vasodilator response to epoprostenol and acetylcholine in the postmenopausal group. The reduced vasodilator response to epoprostenol prior to exercise in early postmenopausal women suggests hormonal changes affect the capacity of prostacyclin signaling; however, the prostanoid balance for pre and postmenopausal women was unchanged. Ultimately, the study showed exercise training can still have a positive effect on the vascularity of newly postmenopausal women.
There are randomized controlled clinical trials and scientific evidence supporting the importance to keep moving as women (and men) age. Menopause should not be a self-proclaimed pause from activity in life. Not everyone has to become a competitive athlete to preserve cardiac and vascular integrity as we age, but we need to engage in some physical activity to keep our systems running for years to come.
Those interested in learning more about menopause rehabilitation considerations should consider attending Menopause Rehabilitation and Symptom Management.
Mazurek, K., Żmijewski, P., Kozdroń, E., Fojt, A., Czajkowska, A., Szczypiorski, P., Tomasz Mazurek, T. (2017). Cardiovascular Risk Reduction in Sedentary Postmenopausal Women During Organised Physical Activity. Kardiologia Polska. 75, 5: 476–485. http://doi:10.5603/KP.a2017.0035
Nyberg, M., Egelund, J., Mandrup, C., Nielsen, M., Mogensen, A., Stallknecht, B., Bangsbo, J., Hellsten, Y. (2016). Early Postmenopausal Phase Is Associated With Reduced Prostacyclin-Induced Vasodilation That Is Reversed by Exercise Training: The Copenhagen Women Study. Hypertension. 68:1011-1020. https://doi.org/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.116.07866
In getting ready to teach my Menopause course in Minneapolis next month, I always like to do a review of the evidence, to see what’s new, or what’s changed. What has changed over the past few years – more and more evidence to support the role of skilled rehab providers, using evidence based assessment techniques to gauge the grade of pelvic organ prolapse and assess the risk of levator avulsion. What hasn’t changed enough – the level of awareness of the benefits of pelvic rehab in managing, or in some cases even reversing, the effects and symptoms of prolapse.
Dr Peter Dietz, from the University of Sydney, writes ‘…although clinical anecdote suggests some physiotherapists recognize other characteristics suggesting muscle dysfunction (e.g. holes, gaps, ridges, scarring) or pelvic floor dysfunction (e.g. width between medial edges of pelvic floor muscle) with palpation it is difficult to find any literature describing the techniques needed to do this or their accuracy or repeatability. Mantle (in 2004) noted that with training and experience a physiotherapist might be able to discern muscle integrity, scarring, and the width between the medial borders of the pelvic floor muscles, with palpation. It is not clear to what extent physiotherapists are able to do this reliably or how such characteristics are to be recorded.’
Dr Dietz describes a palpation technique to assess the integrity of the pubovisceral muscle insertion, by checking the gap between the urethra centrally and the pubovisceral muscle laterally. On levator contraction this gap should be little wider than your index finger, otherwise an avulsion injury is very likely.
There is another aspect of levator assessment that can yield important information on clinical examination. The size of the levator hiatus can be estimated by determining the sum of the genital hiatus (gh) and perineal body (pb) in the context of the ICS POP-Q examination. Gh + pb, ie., the distance between the external urethral meatus and the centre of the anus, when measured on maximal Valsalva with a simple ruler, is highly predictive of symptoms and signs of prolapse, and it is very strongly correlated with hiatal area on Valsalva (Khunda et al., 2011).
Using this research, in the lab sessions of the Menopause course, we will review these palpation and measurement skills to give therapists the skills they need to confidently assess risk of levator avulsion and its impact on pelvic organ prolapse, and to use this information to devise a functionally appropriate rehab program.
Come and join the conversation in my course, Menopause Rehabilitation and Symptom Management!
Khunda A1, Shek KL, Dietz HP., Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012 Mar;206(3):246.e1-4. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2011.10.876. Epub 2011 Nov 7. Can ballooning of the levator hiatus be determined clinically?
With menopause and the hormonal shifts that take place, some women suffer more than others with symptoms such as hot flashes. If you have ever been near someone during a hot flash, you know that this curious condition is more than feeling a little hot under the collar. During a hot flash, women will suddenly disrobe, wake from a deep sleep covered in sweat (so much so that they have to change the sheets!), or otherwise appear distressed and oftentimes suffer interference in whatever activity in which they were engaging. As we reported in an earlier post, women on average may have hot flashes for 5 years after the date of her last period. Some women (up to 1/3 in the referenced study) will report hot flashes for 10 or more years after menopause.
Hot flashes and night sweats also significantly disrupt sleep, according to research by Baker and colleagues. Menopausal women with insomnia may also have higher levels of psychologic, somatic, vasomotor symptoms, and score lower on the Beck Depression Inventory, and sleep efficiency and duration scores. Poor sleep can be associated with morbidity such as hypertension, stroke, diabetes and depression, so interrupted sleep is more than an inconvenience, but potentially a serious health issue.
A more recent study linked anxiety as a potential risk factor for menopausal hot flashes. In 233 women who are premenopausal at baseline and who were followed for at least a year after their final menstrual cycle, anxiety symptoms, hormone levels, hot flashes and other psychosocial variables were assessed. During the 14 year follow-up 72% of the women reported having moderate to severe hot flashes, and the researchers correlated somatic anxiety as a potential predictive association with anxiety. Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as stomach ache, increased heart rate, sweating, muscle aches.
In order to help a woman support her wellness during menopausal transitions, being able to address somatic anxiety and conditions like hot flashes is imperative. Teaching skills such as breathing, relaxation training, meditation, or mindfulness may positively impact the anxiety, and therefore have the potential to reduce hot flashes and other adverse symptoms. Herman & Wallace's Menopause Rehabilitation and Symptom Management course is an excellent opportunity to learn some of these valuable skills.
Baker, F. C., Willoughby, A. R., Sassoon, S. A., Colrain, I. M., & de Zambotti, M. (2015). Insomnia in women approaching menopause: beyond perception. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 60, 96-104.
Freeman, E. W., & Sammel, M. D. (2016). Anxiety as a risk factor for menopausal hot flashes: evidence from the Penn Ovarian Aging cohort. Menopause, 23(9), 942-949.
Freeman, E. W., Sammel, M. D., & Sanders, R. J. (2014). Risk of long term hot flashes after natural menopause: Evidence from the Penn Ovarian Aging Cohort. Menopause (New York, NY), 21(9), 924.
Vaginal wall thinning associated with menopausal changes can cause vaginal burning and pain, limitations in sexual function, and vaginal redness or even changes in discharge. Because these symptoms can mimic many other conditions such as pelvic floor muscle dysfunction or an infection, it is necessary for the pelvic rehabilitation therapist to be alert to identifying vaginal atrophy as an issue to rule out so that patients can access appropriate medical care when needed.
Atrophic vaginitis (AV) is a condition of the vaginal walls associated with tissue thinning, discomfort, and inflammation. The tissue changes often extend into the vulvar area as well. Atrophic vaginitis may also be called vaginal atrophy, vulvovaginal atrophy, urogenital atrophy, or genitourinary syndrome of menopause. Although we tend to associate menopause with women who are in their 40’s or 50’s, any woman who has stopped having her menstrual cycles or who has had a significant reduction in her cycles may be at risk for vaginal atrophy. Any woman who has had a hysterectomy may also be at risk of this thinning of the vaginal walls. Common symptoms of vaginal wall thinning include vaginal dryness, tissue irritation, redness, itching, and a “burning” pain. Interruption in sleep, limitations in activities of daily living, and changes in mood and temperament have also been reported.
One common pharmacological intervention for vaginal and vulvar atrophy is the topical application of hormone creams such as estrogen. A recent study examined the effects of low dose estrogen therapy on bacteria that populates the vaginal walls.Shen et al., 2016 This bacteria may be causal or correlated to vaginal health, and also appears related to estrogen levels. Sixty women diagnosed with atrophic vaginitis were treated with low dose estrogen therapy and followed for four weeks to assess the vaginal microbiotia via mid-vaginal swabs. Following are highlights from the linked study’s findings,
In conclusion, the authors stated that “…a Lactobacillus-dominated vaginal community may be considered as one of the signs of AV treatment success…” along with reduced symptoms and increased serum estradiol levels. Prior studies have recognized barriers to treatment that include lack of patient knowledge of vulvar and vaginal atrophy, failure to discuss associated symptoms with physicians, concerns about safety of treatments or poor symptom relief with prescribed interventions.Kingsburg et al., 2013 This leaves the pelvic rehabilitation provider in a excellent role of educating women in the signs and symptoms of atrophic vaginitis, observing the tissues for changes, and communicating with referring providers and prescribers if a concern is noted. Furthermore, failure to recognize the potential for vaginal atrophy and treating these tissues with manual therapy or exercise may injure or exacerbate the problem.
Interested in learning more? Keep an eye out for a Menopause Rehabilitation and Symptom Management course with Michelle Lyons!
Changes in the Vagina and Vulva. Retrieved June 27, 2016 from http://www.menopause.org/for-women/sexual-health-menopause-online/changes-at-midlife/changes-in-the-vagina-and-vulva
Kingsberg, S. A., Wysocki, S., Magnus, L., & Krychman, M. L. (2013). Vulvar and vaginal atrophy in postmenopausal women: findings from the REVIVE (REal Women's VIews of Treatment Options for Menopausal Vaginal ChangEs) survey. The journal of sexual medicine, 10(7), 1790-1799.
Shen, J., Song, N., Williams, C. J., Brown, C. J., Yan, Z., Xu, C., & Forney, L. J. (2016). Effects of low dose estrogen therapy on the vaginal microbiomes of women with atrophic vaginitis. Scientific reports, 6.
Vaginal Atrophy. Retrieved June 27, 2016 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vaginal-atrophy/home/ovc-20200167
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
After menopause, more than half of women may have vulvovaginal symptoms that can impact their lifestyle, emotional well-being and sexual health. What's more, the symptoms tend to co-exist with issues such as prolapse, urinary and/or bowel problems. But unfortunately many women aren't getting the help they need, despite a growing body of evidence that skilled pelvic rehab interventions are effective in the management of bladder/bowel dysfunctions, POP, sexual health issues and pelvic pain.
Vaginal dryness, hot flashes, night sweats, disrupted sleep, and weight gain have been listed as the top five symptoms experienced by postmenopausal women in North America and Europe, according to a study by Minkin et al 2015, and they also concluded ‘The impact of postmenopausal symptoms on relationships is greater in women from countries where symptoms are more prevalent.’
Between 17% and 45% of postmenopausal women say they find sex painful, a condition referred to medically as dyspareunia. Vaginal thinning and dryness are the most common cause of dyspareunia in women over age 50. However pain during sex can also result from vulvodynia (chronic pain in the vulva, or external genitals) and a number of other causes not specifically associated with menopause or aging, particularly orthopaedic dysfunction, which the pelvic physical therapist is in an ideal position to screen for.
According to the North America Menopause Society, ‘…beyond the immediate effects of the pain itself, pain during sex (or simply fear or anticipation of pain during sex) can trigger performance anxiety or future arousal problems in some women. Worry over whether pain will come back can diminish lubrication or cause involuntary—and painful—tightening of the vaginal muscles, called vaginismus. The result can be a vicious circle, again highlighting how intertwined sexual problems can become.’
The research has demonstrated that the optimal strategy for post-menopausal stress incontinence is a combination of local hormonal treatment and pelvic floor muscle training – the strategy of combining the two approaches has been shown to be superior to either approach used individually (Castellani et al 2015, Capobianco et al 2012) and similar conclusions can be drawn for promoting sexual health peri- and post-menopausally.
The pelvic rehab specialist may be called upon to screen for orthopaedic dysfunction in the spine, hips or pelvis, to discuss sexual ergonomics such as positioning or the use of lubricant as well as providing information and education about sexual health before, during and after menopause.
To learn more about sexual health and pelvic floor function/dysfunction at menopause, join me in Atlanta in March for Menopause: A Rehab Approach!
Prevalence of postmenopausal symptoms in North America and Europe, Minkin, Mary Jane MD, NCMP1; Reiter, Suzanne RNC, NP, MM, MSN2; Maamari, Ricardo MD, NCMP3, Menopause:November 2015 - Volume 22 - Issue 11 - p 1231–1238
Low-Dose Intravaginal Estriol and Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation in Post-Menopausal Stress Urinary Incontinence, Castellani D. · Saldutto P. · Galica V. · Pace G. · Biferi D. · Paradiso Galatioto G. · Vicentini C., Urol Int 2015;95:417-421