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A Multidisciplinary Approach to Interstitial Cystitis: The Clinician's Guide

Dr. Nicole Cozean was just awarded the IC/BPS Physical Therapist of the Year by the IC Network, one of the largest patient advocacy groups for interstitial cystitis! Today she shares her treatment approach for this complex dysfunction. Join Dr. Cozean in San Diego on April 28-29, 2018 to learn everything there is to know about interstitial cystitis.

Interstitial cystitis (IC) is a chronic pelvic pain condition characterized by pelvic pain and urinary urgency/frequency. IC is frequently accompanied by other symptoms1, including painful intercourse, low back or hip pain, nocturia, and suprapubic tenderness.

While pelvic floor physical therapy is the most proven treatment for interstitial cystitis, most patients require a multi-disciplinary approach for optimal results. The majority are forced to develop this holistic approach on their own, but one of the most valuable things a physical therapist can provide is assistance in creating their own unique treatment plan. The American Urological Association has released treatment guidelines for interstitial cystitis, and potential treatments fall into several different categories. It is important to note that most treatments aren’t effective for the majority of patients, so a trial-and-error approach is needed to find the right balance for each patient. Tracking symptoms with a weekly symptom log can be a powerful tool to optimize the individual treatment plan.

AUA Guidelines for Interstitial Cystitis
Summary of the AUA Guidelines for IC – Download Here

Oral Medications

Oral medications are primarily used to reduce pain.Anti-depressants can dampen the nervous system, decreasing the severity of pain reported. Anti-histamines have also been shown to be effective in reducing the pain and symptoms of interstitial cystitis, perhaps because of their ability to reduce inflammation and break the cycle of dysfunction-inflammation-pain (the DIP cycle). Some patients require opioid painkillers for adequate pain control.

Urinary tract analgesics can provide temporary pain relief for some patients, but cannot be taken consistently because they thicken the urine and strain the kidneys. Some patients find success using these medications (Azo, Pyridium, Uribel) during severe pain flares.

The only FDA-approved oral treatment for interstitial cystitis is Pentosan Polysulfate (PPS, Elmiron®). This is commonly prescribed to patients after an IC diagnosis, but has been shown to be effective in only 28-32% of patients. It also requires a long time (often 6-9 months) to build up in the system and take effect, and many patients stop taking the drug before they could see effect because of side effects (including hair loss) or cost. Unfortunately, many patients lose more than a year after their initial diagnosis waiting to see if Elmiron will work for them, when it is unlikely to provide complete relief.

Antibiotics should never be prescribed for IC in the absence of a confirmed infection.

Bladder and Medical Procedures

Bladder instillations deliver numbing medication directly to the bladder through a catheter and can provide temporary pain relief for some patients. If these are effective, they typically are repeated at least weekly as symptoms return. Some patients don’t tolerate the catheterization well, finding the procedure causes more pain than it prevents. Typical bladder instillations consist of Lidocaine, Heparin, or a combination of the two.

Another route of treatment works by artificially stimulating the nerves the innervate the bladder and pelvic floor.Percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS) directs electrical impulses from the ankle up through the pelvic floor. This is an outpatient procedure typically performed weekly for a course of 12 weeks. A more permanent option is implanting a device under the skin of the buttock to target the sacral or pudendal nerve root directly.With this procedure, the patient is given a ‘trial run’ with an external device to see how it performs. If significant improvements are noted, the device can be permanently implanted.

Many patients see marked improvement in their symptoms with a home care program. Deep breathing or meditation can calm the nervous system and reduce the amplifying effect of an upregulated nervous system. A stretching regimen targeting the inner thighs, glutes, abdomen, and pelvic floor can relax muscles and reduce nerve irritation in the region. Self-massage can find and eliminate the trigger points that are causing symptoms. Home tools like a foam roller can address external trigger points, while patients can be taught internal self-release with the help of a tool like the PelviWand or another tool.

Elimination Diet

One of the most common misunderstandings about IC centers on the ‘IC Diet.’ In fact, there’s no such thing. While nearly 90% of IC patients report that diet influences their symptoms in some way, the scope and severity of dietary triggers varies greatly between patients. There are a few common culprits - coffee, tea, citrus fruits, artificial sweeteners, tomatoes, cranberry juice - but no guarantee that a patient will be sensitive to all (or any) of these. Many patients read about an ‘IC Diet’ online after receiving their diagnosis, and are convinced that they need to cut out a huge portion of their diet.

Instead, they should be doing an elimination diet focused on identifying their trigger foods.With this approach, they eliminate most of those common culprits and see how it affects their symptoms.If they notice an improvement, they can gradually add foods back into their diet, one at a time, until they see symptoms increase again. This allows patients to identify their specific trigger foods.

Our advice for IC patients is simple - avoid your trigger foods and eat healthy. It doesn’t have to be any more restrictive than that.

There are also several supplements that have shown benefit for patients, either in clinical trials or anecdotally. Prelief (calcium glycerophospate) is an antacid that may reduce the consequences of eating a trigger food. L-Arginine is a semi-essential amino acid that facilitates blood flow and vasodilation; in clinical trials it was shown to be effective for nearly 50% of patients in reducing pain and urinary symptoms. Aloe Vera pills are used by many patients, and thought to help replenish the bladder’s protective layer. Finally, a combination of supplements known as Cystoprotek is also a common supplement taken by IC patients, combining anti-inflammatory flavonoids with molecules that may reinforce the bladder lining.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture has been shown to provide relief for pelvic pain patients2, with 73% of men with chronic prostatitis (either identical or closely related to IC) reporting improvement. These men received two treatments weekly for six weeks, focusing around the sacral nerve. Women with pelvic pain and painful intercourse have also reported improvements in pain with 10 sessions of acupuncture3.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to help reduce pain in conditions as diverse as cancer, low back pain, and pelvic pain. In pelvic pain, ten one-hour sessions of CBT was shown to provide significant benefit for nearly half of patients4. Supportive psychotherapy was also shown to have benefits for pelvic pain patients.

A multi-disciplinary approach provides the best results for patients. Physical therapists, who see our patients regularly, can be a great resource in suggesting additional treatment options. The American Urological Association IC Guidelines can be an important resource in guiding patients to other options and developing their unique treatment plan.

Information and Resources

For additional patient resources available for download, feel free to visit The IC Solution page.. In our upcoming course for clinicians treating interstitial cystitis (April 28-29, 2018 in San Diego), we’ll focus on the most important physical therapy techniques for IC, home stretching and self-care programs, and information to guide patients in creating a holistic treatment plan.


1. Cozean, N. "Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy in the Treatment of a Patient with Interstitial Cystitis, Dyspareunia, and Low Back Pain: A Case Report". Journal of Women's Health Physical Therapy. 2017
2. Chen R, Nickel JC. "Acupuncture ameliorates symptoms in men with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome"Urology. 2003 Jun;61(6):1156-9; discussion 1159.
3. Schlaeger, J, et al. "Acupuncture for the Treatment of Vulvodynia: A Randomized Wait‐List Controlled Pilot Study". Journal of Sexual Medicine. 30 January 2015. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12830
4. Masheb, et al. "A randomized clinical trial for women with vulvodynia: Cognitive-behavioral therapy vs. supportive psychotherapy". PAIN® Volume 141, Issues 1–2, January 2009, Pages 31-40

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Low Dose Estrogen and Vaginal Microbiomes in Atrophic Vaginitis

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.

Vaginal Canal Normal vs. MenopauseAtrophic 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,

  • Prior to treatment, in symptomatic postmenopausal women the Lactobacilli species were less abundant and made up 11.2% of the community, while in asymptomatic women, the communities were more than 50% lactobacilli
  • Gardnerella was more abundant than Lactobacillus in women with atrophic vaginitis
  • Overall diversity of bacterial communities between healthy women and those with atrophic vaginitis was not significantly different
  • In response to treatment with estrogen, women with AV reported improved symptoms and decreased vaginal pH
  • Serum estradiol improved on average from approximately 42 pmol/L to 168 pmol/L by week 2, with little change from week 2 to week 4
  • Lactobacillus count was negatively correlated with symptoms (i.e., more Lactobacillis = less symptoms) and Gardnerella and Atopobium counts were positively correlated with symptoms
  • There were variations noted in how each woman’s vaginal bacterial communities responded to the estrogen therapy in that some women had a dominance of other bacteria after 4 weeks even though their symptoms decreased

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

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Pelvic Floor Capstone Course is Ready for Liftoff!

More than a year ago, after working on updating the pelvic floor series courses PF1, 2A and 2B, the Institute turned our attention to the final course in our popular series, PF3. To determine what content our participants wanted to learn about in the last continuing education course of the series, we asked that exact question. From a large survey of therapists who had taken all or most of the courses in the pelvic core series, we collected detailed data from therapists about what was needed to round out their comprehensive training. The results of that survey guided hundreds (and hundreds!) of hours of work completed by a team of instructors. This month, in the beautiful city of Denver, the three instructors who created the Capstone course will share their wisdom, clinical experiences, as well as their thoughtfully-designed lectures and labs. You will have an opportunity to learn in depth about topics covered in the prior courses in the series. 

Such topics include lifespan issues and health issues common to different ages, conditions of polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, infertility, pelvic organ prolapse and surgeries, pelvic fascial anatomy, pharmacology and nutrition. Lab components are detailed and comprehensive for working with specific common implications from conditions in pelvic dysfunction or surgery. This course focuses on the female pelvis, including diving into the complexities of female pelvic health issues. The instructors have all worked in the field for many years, are experienced in working with complex patient presentations, and all excel at manual therapies. I asked each of them to briefly share thoughts about the Capstone course that they each dedicated the last year in developing; following you can read their thoughts.

Nari Clemons

"I'm excited for every therapist who will take this course, as it is made to help you approach your practice at a whole new level.  We are eager to help your hands work dynamically with more intelligence and how to tackle complex restrictions in the pelvis and abdomen that go far beyond releasing muscles.  Additionally, the practitioners will raise their capacity of recognizing and helping the patient manage complex conditions, such as endometriosis, PCOS, fibroids, and IBS." 

Allison Ariail

"One of the best things about the Capstone course is that it provides the participants tools to treat more complicated patients. Topics such as endocrinology, oncology, vulvar dermatology, and surgical procedures are addressed, which will complete the picture for some of those patients that are hard to treat due to the complexity of their case. This knowledge, along with more advanced manual treatment techniques, will add to the skill set of the participants to improve their treatment outcomes. I am excited for the participants to combine their current clinical skills along with some new knowledge and techniques to be able to treat the whole person when working with complex and challenging patients." 

Jennifer van de Vegte

"Designing and creating Capstone with Nari and Allison was an incredible experience. My own knowledge and clinical expertise grew profoundly while researching and writing this material. Capstone is designed to really take the experienced pelvic health therapist to the next level of understanding and treating more complex patients. I can't wait to see the impact this material has on participants and their patients."

There is still time to register for the few remaining seats in Denver this weekend!

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Treating Ulcerative Colitis: Generic vs. Brand-Name Medicine

Erin Matlock, who struggles with ulcerative colitis, one day opened her Delzicol capsule to find her pervious medication inside.

The Bulletin, a newspaper in Central Oregon, published a piece about Matlock?s change in medication titled, ?Blocking generics.?? This piece examines the financial benefits pharmaceutical companies gain from patenting new prescriptions just before they face competition from generic manufacturers: ?With no new clinical trials, the company secured an expedited review from the FDA and got Delzicol approved six months before Asacol was due to go off-patent. ?By pulling Asacol from the market, they could get doctors to begin writing prescriptions for Delzicol and patients established on it well before a generic Asacol arrived.?

For years, Matlock took Asacol to help treat her condition.? Until it stopped being manufactured.? Her doctor told her about a new prescription from the same manufacturer called Delzicol.? Now she has the choice between taking twelve Delzicol pills (which she finds more difficult to digest) a day and spending $25 a month or taking four Apriso pills (another mesalamine-based medicine) a day while paying $125 dollars a month.

Matlock?s struggles are not uncommon.? Many patients who suffer from ulcerative colitis require medication, and even surgery, to treat their symptoms.

Although there is no known cure, correctly applied therapy has been known to markedly reduce symptoms and even lead to long-term remission.

Herman & Wallace offered their first on Bowel Pathology and Function in Stony Brook, NY last April and is in the midst of confirming dates for another course in 2014.? Keep a look out for updates!

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Upcoming Continuing Education Courses

Oct 18, 2019 - Oct 20, 2019
Location: The George Washington University

Oct 18, 2019 - Oct 20, 2019
Location: University Hospitals

Oct 19, 2019 - Oct 21, 2019
Location: Lee Memorial Health System

Oct 25, 2019 - Oct 27, 2019
Location: Core 3 Physical Therapy

Oct 26, 2019 - Oct 27, 2019
Location: Texas Children’s Hospital

Nov 1, 2019 - Nov 3, 2019
Location: Adena Rehabilitation and Wellness Center

Nov 1, 2019 - Nov 3, 2019
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Nov 1, 2019 - Nov 3, 2019
Location: Cancer Treatment Centers of America - Chicago, IL

Nov 1, 2019 - Nov 3, 2019
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Nov 2, 2019 - Nov 3, 2019
Location: University Hospitals

Nov 2, 2019 - Nov 3, 2019
Location: Griffin Hospital

Nov 3, 2019 - Nov 5, 2019
Location: Touro College: Bayshore

Nov 8, 2019 - Nov 10, 2019
Location: Washington Regional Medical Center

Nov 9, 2019 - Nov 11, 2019
Location: Comprehensive Therapy Services

Nov 9, 2019 - Nov 10, 2019
Location: Summa Health Center

Nov 9, 2019 - Nov 10, 2019
Location: STI PT and Rehab

Nov 9, 2019 - Nov 10, 2019
Location: Providence Holy Cross Medical Center of Mission Hills

Nov 15, 2019 - Nov 17, 2019
Location: Banner Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Nov 15, 2019 - Nov 17, 2019
Location: Ability Rehabilitation

Nov 15, 2019 - Nov 17, 2019
Location: Huntington Hospital

Nov 16, 2019 - Nov 17, 2019
Location: Princeton Healthcare System

Dec 6, 2019 - Dec 7, 2019
Location: Swedish Covenant Hospital

Dec 6, 2019 - Dec 8, 2019
Location: Swedish Covenant Hospital

Dec 6, 2019 - Dec 8, 2019
Location: Franklin Pierce University

Dec 6, 2019 - Dec 8, 2019
Location: Florida Hospital - Wesley Chapel

Jan 10, 2020 - Jan 12, 2020
Location: Dominican Hospital - Physical Therapy

Jan 17, 2020 - Jan 19, 2020
Location: Spooner Physical Therapy

Jan 17, 2020 - Jan 19, 2020
Location: Banner Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Jan 17, 2020 - Jan 19, 2020
Location: Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital

Jan 24, 2020 - Jan 26, 2020
Location: Nova Southeastern University