The following is a guest submission from Alysson Striner, PT, DPT, PRPC. Dr. Striner became a Certified Pelvic Rehabilitation Practitioner (PRPC) in May of 2018. She specializes in pelvic rehabilitation, general outpatient orthopedics, and aquatics. She sees patients at Carondelet St Joesph’s Hospital in the Speciality Rehab Clinic located in Tucson, Arizona.
Myofascial pain from levator ani (LA) and obturator internus (OI) and connective tissues are a frequent driver of pelvic pain. As pelvic therapists, it can often be challenging to decipher whether pain is related to muscular and/or fascial restrictions. A quick review from Pelvic Floor Level 2B; overactive muscles can become functionally short (actively held in a shortened position). These pelvic floor muscles do not fully relax or contract. An analogy for this is when one lifts a grocery bag that is too heavy. One cannot lift the bag all the way or extend the arm all the way down, instead the person often uses other muscles to elevate or lower the bag. Over time both the muscle and fascial restrictions can occur when the muscle becomes structurally short (like a contracture). Structurally short muscles will appear flat or quiet on surface electromyography (SEMG). An analogy for this is when you keep your arm bent for too long, it becomes much harder to straighten out again. Signs and symptoms for muscle and fascial pain are pain to palpation, trigger points, and local or referred pain, a positive Q tip test to the lower quadrants, and common symptoms such as urinary frequency, urgency, pain, and/or dyspareunia.
For years in the pelvic floor industry there has been notable focus on vocabulary. Encouraging all providers (researchers, MDs, and PTs) to use the same words to describe pelvic floor dysfunction allowing more efficient communication. Now that we are (hopefully) using the same words, the focus is shifting to physical assessment of pelvic floor and myofascial pain. If patients can experience the same assessment in different settings then they will likely have less fear, and the medical professionals will be able to communicate more easily.
A recent article did a systematic review of physical exam techniques for myofascial pain of pelvic floor musculature. This study completed a systematic review for the examination techniques on women for diagnosis of LA and OI myofascial pain. In the end, 55 studies with 9460 participants; 99.8% were female, that met the inclusion and exclusion criteria were assessed. The authors suggest the following as good foundation to begin; but more studies will be needed to validate and to further investigate associations between chronic pelvic pain and lower urinary tract symptoms with myofascial pain.
The recommended sequence for examining pelvic myofascial pain is:
Authors recommend bilateral palpation and documentation of trigger point location and severity with VAS. They recommend visual inspection and observation of functional movement of pelvic floor muscles.
The good news is that this is exactly how pelvic therapists are taught to assess the pelvic floor in Pelvic Floor Level 1. This is reviewed in Pelvic Floor Level 2B and changed slightly for Pelvic Floor Level 2A when the pelvic floor muscles are assessed rectally. Ramona Horton also teaches a series on fascial palpation, beginning with Mobilization of the Myofascial Layer: Pelvis and Lower Extremity. I agree that palpation should be completed bilaterally by switching hands to make assessment easier for the practitioner who may be on the side of the patient/client depending on the set up. This is an important conversation between medical providers to allow for easy communication between disciplines.
Meister, Melanie & Shivakumar, Nishkala & Sutcliffe, Siobhan & Spitznagle, Theresa & L Lowder, Jerry. (2018). Physical examination techniques for the assessment of pelvic floor myofascial pain: a systematic review. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 219. 10.1016/j.ajog.2018.06.014
There has been a bit of buzz on the various news outlets and social media feeds about the “new organ” the interstitium. On March 27th an article appeared in Scientific Reports, an online peer-reviewed journal from the publishers of Nature. This work was presented by a team of researchers that utilized a new in vivo laser endomicroscopy technique that demonstrated this tissue is a matrix of collagen bundles and elastic fibers surrounded by fluid rather than the tightly packed layers of connective tissue that was previously observed on fixed slides . This submucosal layer was observed in the entire gastrointestinal tract, the urinary bladder, bronchus, dermis, bronchus and peri-arterial soft tissue and fascia. The authors state, “In sum, we describe the anatomy and histology of a previously unrecognized, though widespread, macroscopic, fluid-filled space within and between tissues, a novel expansion and specification of the concept of the human interstitium” Benias et al., 2018.
The only thing ‘new’ is the way that this group of scientists observed the tissue that until now has primarily been studied ex vivo. I find it rather humorous to note that it is mainstream news that histologists in the 21st century just realized that there is a difference in the architecture of living versus dead tissue. They noted a significant change in the appearance of tissue slides that were chemically fixed in the traditional manner when compared to studies of in vivo structures as well as fresh frozen samples. The researchers noted this tissue in the dermis as well as urinary system, gastrointestinal system and respiratory system. This further supports one of my favorite talking points presented in the visceral mobilization courses “fascia is fascia is fascia is fascia.”
As an instructor that presents entire courses around the importance of the fascial system within all structures of the body including the dermis, epimysium, all organs, and the adventitia of vessels, I am thrilled to see this layer of the fascial system receive recognition and garner the attention it deserves. However, to refer to the interstitium as a new undiscovered organ is to ignore the work of the International Fascia Research Congress as well as many other notable scientists. These researchers see the fascial system as the dynamic mesenchymal tissue that unites every cell in the body and allows for fluid and tissue movement.
French hand surgeon Dr. Jean-Claude Guimrberteau has documented this tissue utilizing microendoscopy on living subjects for the past 20 years. Dr Guimberteau created a brilliant DVD called Strolling Under the Skin, you can view an excerpt available on YouTube. Following the success of several videos, he went on to co-author the book Architecture of Human Living Fascia: The extracellular matrix and cells revealed through endoscopy.
Another brilliant researcher is Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Carla Stecco. Her paper The Fascia: the forgotten structure is an excellent review of the three-dimensional continuity of the myofascia. Following multiple publications, she also authored the book The Functional Atlas of the Human Fascial System. Her work is limited to the myofascial layer and does not include the visceral fascia although she notes its presence in her published works. For those that would like to know more about this tissue, I highly recommend both of these authors. If you wish to explore how a physical therapist can utilize this information in clinical practice, join me for one of my courses on fascial manipulation. The fascial based treatment for pelvic dysfunction series includes:
Benias, P. C., Wells, R. G., Sackey-Aboagye, B., Klavan, H., Reidy, J., Buonocore, D., ... & Theise, N. D. (2018). Structure and Distribution of an Unrecognized Interstitium in Human Tissues. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 4947. https://:doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-23062-6, 2018.
Stecco, C., Macchi, V., Porzionato, A., Duparc, F., & De Caro, R. (2011). The fascia: the forgotten structure. Italian journal of anatomy and embryology, 116(3), 127.