Aparna Rajagopal, PT, MHS is the lead therapist at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital's pelvic dysfunction program, where she treats pelvic rehab patients and consults with the sports therapy team. Her interests in treating peripartum patients and athletes allowed her to recognize the role that breathing plays in pelvic dysfunction. She has just joined the Herman & Wallace faculty and co-authored the new course, "Breathing and the Diaphragm: Pelvic and Orthopedic Therapists", which helps clinicians understand breathing mechanics and their relationship to the pelvic floor.
Aparna was kind enough to introduce herself to us here on The Pelvic Rehab Report.
Thank you for your time Aparna! To start, tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Aparna. I’ve been a physical therapist for 22 years. About 16 years ago I switched focus from orthopedics to treating pregnancy and postpartum patients and that’s where my initial interest in pelvic care started. In 2006 following my pregnancy and birth of my daughter, my interest in pelvic care grew with my special interest becoming pelvic pain.
I teach and mentor the pelvic health therapists within the fairly large hospital system that I work at and collaborate with our spine center team and our sports team.
What can you tell us about this new breathing course that is not mentioned in the “course description” and “objectives” that are posted online?
Physical therapy has evolved and continues to evolve as we speak. Regional inter dependence, wherein the different systems interplay, and one structure influences another, is fascinating. No longer is the body considered and treated as independent fragmented pieces. The ‘core’ with the contribution of the Diaphragm and the pelvic floor is so much more than just the Transverse Abdominis and the Multifidus working together. Fascial restrictions of the lower abdomen and the pelvis can influence how the low back feels, thoracic stiffness can influence the interplay between the various abdominal muscles by way on their insertion into the lower ribs, musculo- skeletal pain and postural deviations can stem from incorrect breathing patterns etc.
Normal breathing rate is about 10 times every minute. Breathing incorrectly reinforces wrong movement patterns tens of thousand times a day with negative consequences on the musculoskeletal system.
This course offers an in depth look at the diaphragm from the perspective of both orthopedic and pelvic therapists and attempts to tie in the diaphragm to the thoracic spine, the ribs, the pelvic floor, the core, posture and finally the athlete.
What essential skills does the breath course add to a practitioner’s toolkit?
The practitioner will walk away with the ability to view the patient as a “whole”. It offers a different perspective on neck and back pain, posture/ alignment along with the ability to assess for and connect breathing and the diaphragm to stability/ the core, continence issues and the Autonomic Nervous System.
As therapists we already do a great job of addressing strength issues, assessing and correcting posture, mobilizing etc. You can add to your treatment options by learning how the diaphragm works in concert with other muscles (especially the abdominals) and systems, identifying breathing pattern dysfunctions and postures, and movement patterns which may be linked to breathing pattern dysfunctions. This understanding is beneficial for both orthopedic and pelvic patients.
What inspired you to create this course? What void does this new offering fill?
I have used breathing and evaluation of the diaphragm as a part of pelvic care for several years now. As the mentor for the pelvic program at my hospital, and as a part of the spine team and sports team, I work with pelvic therapists, orthopedic therapists, manual certified therapists, and sports certified therapists. Through my interactions I have come to realize that although many of the therapists are aware that the Diaphragm and breathing are important, they are unsure of how to assess for dysfunctions and address those dysfunctions. I initially started conducting classes within the hospital system. At the same time Leeann who is a sports certified therapist and holds a manual therapy certificate and I started collaborating on our patients. Using a combination of her knowledge and effective manual techniques with my pelvic care and breathing techniques we realized that along with my pelvic patients; our back and neck patients, and her sports patients were all benefitting from this combined approach. We realized along the way that we had information worth sharing with our colleagues that would benefit them in treating their patients, and started classes within the hospital system and that is how this class was born!
What was your process like creating this course?
As a trained pelvic therapist, I have incorporated and used breath and the diaphragm in my treatment for over a decade. Leeann and I have created this course using a combination of our clinical experiences, our education in our respective chosen paths of patient care, and most importantly using recent and relevant research articles from journals to guide us extensively in creating this course.
Breathing and the Diaphragm: Pelvic and Orthopedic Therapists is a new course being offered next March 27-29, 2020 in Sterling Heights, MI, and again on December 11-13, 2020 in Princeton, NJ. It is created and taught by Aparna Rajagopal, PT, MHS and Leeann Taptich, PT, DPT. Come learn how the diaphragm and breathing can affect core and postural stability through intra-abdominal pressure changes. As an integrated approach, the course looks at structures from the glottis and the cervical region to the pelvic floor and helps in understanding a multi component system that works together.
In an effort to provide the best possible educational experience for clinical rehabilitation application of neuroanatomy, I was on a mission. Having a core, base knowledge review of the nervous system is essential when leading into talking about dysfunction and disease of that system. I went on a search for anatomical depictions that could clearly identify the structures and processes I was trying to portray. New books from the library and books I own from when I was in college serve as great resources when trying to get back into studying the specifics, but do not offer the opportunity to easily get these images into a powerpoint. Online resources are also challenging. I am learning how time consuming the process can be to determine who owns the online image, if it is free to copy, save and utilize for my own teaching purposes, or if I need to go through the process of requesting permissions for use.
Through my employer, where I treat patients in the clinic, I have access to a program called Primal Pictures. I had used this in the past for clinic related marketing presentations and educational materials for patients and other clinicians I have mentored. Looking into the product further, I came to find out that there is a newer version of the program which offered so many more options. A truly unlimited amount of images which can be manipulated into an optimal position depicting the most clear neuroanatomical views I have ever been able to find. Not only does it provide me with the images I need in order to depict the treacherous pathways of the nerves in our body, but it also provides some amazing depictions of the physiological processes that occur within our nervous system to allow for healthy day to day functioning and protection of our bodies.
I also came across the title of a journal article that I was sure would provide some excellent depictions of neuroanatomy. The article titled, Sectional Neuroanatomy of the Pelvic Floor, provides cross sectional views of both the male and female pelvises. I obtained the article which has an excellent color-coded system, each nerve colored the same as the muscles and skin surface it innervates, going from superior to inferior cross sections. This makes for a clear understanding of each structures anatomical position. It is a great reference when looking at the anatomical relationships to adjacent structures and can help guide palpation skills. The article was more specifically written for physicians to best direct needle procedures/injections in the most accurate location possible when targeting nerves and structures. Neuroanatomy and physiology can be essential to understanding certain patient populations we encounter as we practice pelvic floor rehabilitation. Having clear depictions to refer to can help you provide the best possible base knowledge to your patients as you help them understand the challenges they face and how to overcome them.
Kass, J. S., Chiou-Tan, F. Y., Harrell, J. S., Zhang, H., & Taber, K. H. (2010). Sectional neuroanatomy of the pelvic floor. Journal of computer assisted tomography, 34(3), 473-477.
While my dad was visiting Michigan, we had the day to ourselves as my kids were in school. I was so excited to have quality time with my dad. Unfortunately it was pouring down rain. We decided on a leisurely brunch and then a movie. Dad chose the movie, “Wind River.” While not a movie I would normally pick, I was happy to go along. A little more than half way through…there was a horribly violent scene against a young women. I panicked, plugged my ears and closed my eyes. Unfortunately some images were burned into the back of my mind. When the movie was over, I remained seated and tears just came. My dad held me while I cried. I was able to calm down and leave the theater, but the images continued to bother me. During the next few days, I made it a priority to care for myself and allow my nervous system to process and heal.
What happened to me? I have never had any traumatic personal experience. Why did I react so strongly? I talked with my therapist about it and she suggested I might have experienced secondary traumatic stress. We know, as pelvic health therapists, we need extra time to hear the “stories” of new patients. We do our best to create a safe space for them so they can trust us and we can help them discover pathways to healing. Yet no one has taught us what we are supposed to do with the traumatic stories our patients share. How are we to cope with holding space for their pain? How do we put on a happy face as we exit the room to get the next patient?
Teaching Capstone over the last few years, Nari Clemons and I have talked with many of you who were feeling emotionally overloaded especially when treating chronic pelvic pain and trauma survivors. Some of you were experiencing job burnout, others were deciding maybe it was time for a career shift, away from the pelvis. We realized something needed to be done as our field was losing talented pelvic health therapists. We have also struggled ourselves with various aspects of our profession.
There are no studies that directly look at job burn out, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue among pelvic health physical therapists. Yet these problems are common among social workers, physicians and other people groups in health care. There are individual as well as institutional risk factors that lead to the development of each. The solution, as one self-help module puts it, is developing resilience. A large part of this skill is making self-care a priority. The basics such as adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise are foundational. Meditation, mindfulness, therapy, and spiritual practices, as well as supportive friends/groups are also imperative.
Nari and I realized that training to develop resilience in therapists was missing. Initially we equipped ourselves to have better boundaries, ground ourselves with meditation, mindfulness and exercise, which enhanced our skills in dealing with complex, chronic patients. We compiled what we have learned and want to share it with you. We would like to invite you to attend Holistic Interventions and Meditation: Boundaries, Self-Care, and Dialogue. We have designed this 3 day course to be partially educational and absolutely experiential. We are going to dig deeper into ways to calm our patient’s and our own nervous systems, explore and practice the latest recommendations on treatment of persistent pain, we will mediate and learn about mediation, play with essential oils, learn some new hands on techniques, and support and encourage one another as we build communication skills. We want you to leave feeling refreshed and equipped to continue to treat patients without losing yourself in the process. We want to invest in you so you can continue the investment you have made in your career and avoid job burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. We invite you to develop the resilience you need for a rewarding career in pelvic health physical therapy by joining us in Tampa this January.
Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C. C. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological services, 11(1), 75.
Meadors, P., Lamson, A., Swanson, M., White, M., & Sira, N. (2010). Secondary traumatization in pediatric healthcare providers: Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 60(2), 103-128.
Sodeke-Gregson, E. A., Holttum, S., & Billings, J. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress in UK therapists who work with adult trauma clients. European journal of psychotraumatology, 4(1), 21869.
Stearns, S., & Benight, C. C. (2016). Organizational Factors in Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress. In Secondary Trauma and Burnout in Military Behavioral Health Providers (pp. 85-113). Palgrave Macmillan US.
Recently I had a patient referred to me for fecal incontinence. She looked so familiar to me and we realized she had seen me before, years ago, for bladder issues. She was a sweet 60 something single woman who had raised 6 kids on her own after her husband left her. We laughed as she remembered something funny I had said back then. Then we got down to business. In recent years my patient “Inez” had been diagnosed with both diabetes and Crohn’s disease. She was managing the Crohn’s very well but her sugars were much harder for her to get under control. When I asked her about her current complaints and symptoms she reported that most days her bowels were perfect. She reported one or two soft easy to pass stools per day. But when she had to leave the house for a doctor appointment, she would have explosive diarrhea. This didn’t happen if she went to the grocery store or to visit a friend. Upon further questioning she realized she was really anxious about her diabetes and her interactions with her medical provider regarding her diabetes had not been positive. She felt frustrated, scared, and powerless.
As a pelvic health PT I could have treated Inez in a variety of ways. With my initial exam I did not see any glaring musculoskeletal issues. I suggested to Inez the possibility that her nervous system was sending the wrong kind of signals to her bowels when she got anxious and that we could address this in PT. Inez agreed that she would like to try this approach. We decided that we would reevaluate after four visits to see if we needed to change the plan. Over four visits I used craniosacral therapy protocols to address nervous system upregulation and tension. I taught Inez relaxation techniques and encouraged 10 or 15 minutes of daily relaxation practice. Inez opened up about her relationship with her kids and how they tended to be takers but not givers. She would get frustrated and feel a bit used at times. We had conversations about boundaries and saying “no” and I shared some of my own experiences and struggles as well. Lastly we talked about how what we think can affect how we feel and what we do. Inez’s faith was important to her. She found a few bible verses that were meaningful to her about fear and anxiety and would repeat those during her daily relaxation time. On her fourth visit, Inez was all smiles. She brought me a jar of her homemade salsa as a graduation present. As we sat down to talk she reported to me that she saw her doctor yesterday. She had no bowel issues. And more than that, as her doctor began to talk over her she said to him, “No. Stop. You are always talking and never listening. I need you to listen to me today.” She went on to explain to him how it worried her that she was not able to control her diabetes well and she didn’t think he was doing enough to help her. Her physician did stop and listen and asked Inez, “what would you like me to do for you?” She asked for a referral to a specialist and he obliged. Inez was thrilled that she was able to manage her anxiety in a way that helped her bowels and to find the courage to confront her doctor to get the care she felt she needed.
As we grow in the knowledge of how the human body works it seems like all roads lead back to the nervous system. All of our treatments and interactions with patients affect the nervous system in one way or another. In our fast paced, stressed out world, finding ways to be intentional in addressing the nervous system can be a game changer for patients (as well as for ourselves). If this is an area you would like to grow in, please consider a new course being offered this January in Tampa, Florida. Participants taking Holistic Interventions and Meditation will experience and explore evidence-based information on strategies to address the nervous system. Topics covered include practical meditation, use of essential oils, supplements, yoga, calming and centering manual techniques and instruction in how to best dialogue with patients struggling with pain, anxiety and the effects of trauma. Nari Clemons and I hope to see you there.
Faurot, K. K. R., Gaylord, S., Palsson, O. S., Garland, E. L., Mann, J. D., & Whitehead, W. E. (2014). 715 Mindfulness Meditation Has Long-Term Therapeutic Benefits in Women With Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Follow-Up Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Gastroenterology, 146(5), S-124.
Kearney, D. J. (2012). Mindfulness meditation for women with irritable bowel syndrome–evidence of benefit from a randomised controlled trial. Evidence-based nursing, 15(3), 80-81.
Keefer, L., & Blanchard, E. B. (2001). The effects of relaxation response meditation on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: results of a controlled treatment study. Behaviour research and therapy, 39(7), 801-811.
The Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute was founded nearly a decade ago by physical therapists and educators Kathe Wallace and Holly Herman. The Institute has served as a platform for foundational to advanced pelvic rehabilitation coursework that covers a wide variety of topics. Included in some of the newer coursework is content directed at more general orthopedics or women’s health topics, such as:
Occasionally, as we have continued to expand our offerings at the Institute, participants have expressed concern that a few of the courses are “not pelvic floor” related. We wanted to take a moment to share our perspective regarding that concern:
1. Most pelvic rehabilitation providers are not exclusively working with patients who have pelvic floor dysfunction.
When we completed a survey of job task analysis among pelvic rehabilitation therapists, we learned that many therapists are not working with patients who have pelvic dysfunction 100% of their time, and that general musculoskeletal care makes up a large part of many pelvic rehab therapists’ caseload. Unfortunately, many patients aren’t often dealing with only one dysfunction, so our patients who present with urinary incontinence may also have foot pain, or headaches, for example.
2. Many pelvic rehabilitation providers also describe themselves as orthopedic therapists.
The majority of therapists who responded to our job analysis survey (and those who attend our courses) work in either an outpatient facility or a hospital-based outpatient facility. In fact, many of the respondents are board-certified in orthopedics. Outpatient facilities typically require that a therapist can work with any part of the body, in addition to the pelvis.
3. General orthopedic rehabilitation is closely related to pelvic rehabilitation.
There are an overwhelming number of ways that a patient’s comorbid conditions can be related to the pelvic floor. For example, a patient with foot pain may unload the involved side, placing increased strain on the hip, pelvis, and low back on the opposite side. Another patient who has poor balance may decrease their degrees of freedom by holding the trunk and pelvic muscles tense in order to compensate for a balance difficulty. A patient who has migraines may have to spend a significant amount of time lying flat when she has migraines, potentially leading to discomfort in other joints.
4. We have not decreased the amount of pelvic courses we offer in exchange for general, orthopedic courses. On the contrary, the Institute has continued to add more focused pelvic rehabilitation courses such as Post-Prostatectomy Patient Rehabilitation, Assessing and Treating Women with Vulvodynia, and Geriatric Pelvic Floor Rehab.
In short, we have chosen to offer some coursework that is not solely focused on the pelvis, because these courses can provide benefits to the therapists and to the patients they serve. The Institute is always interested in participant feedback, and is willing to try out new courses to gauge interest level and satisfaction with new courses. As always, you will be provided with the best in pelvic rehabilitation education, and have opportunities to take courses from instructors who offer additional skills and expertise. If you have any questions, or suggestions about course content, please let us know by filling out the Contact Us form on the website. And if you have an idea for a new course you’d like to teach that adds to our existing offerings, we’d love to hear from you- please fill out this form if you have a new course idea.