Unfortunately one of the most common things we hear in pelvic rehab is “I hope you can help me, you’re my last hope.” In severe cases, this translates to the patient having little hope of surviving their life with pelvic pain. In severe but not necessarily life-threatening cases, being a patient’s last hope can also mean “please help me have sex in my relationship or my partner is going to leave me.” This situation places a lot of pressure on the patient and also on the therapist. How long did it take this patient to find her way to pelvic rehab? Research tells us that most women have been through multiple physicians, under- or misdiagnosed, and that many have failed attempts at intervention with medications or procedures.
It’s clear to women that they are being judged when they go to medical appointments complaining of pelvic pain or pain with intercourse. Although it seems really old school to hear that a provider said “It’s all in your head.” or “How much do you like your partner?” or “Well, you’re getting older, sex isn’t that important.” these dismissive phrases are still used. A study by Nguyen et al., 2013 reported that women who reported chronic pain were more likely to perceive being stereotyped by doctors and others. Interestingly, among the group of women who had chronic vulvar pain, the women who sought care for their condition reported feeling more stigmatized. Because the support a woman perceives may influence her willingness to seek out help for chronic vulvar pain, we need to keep educating our peers, the public, and the providers about the real challenges women face, and the power of rehabilitation in overcoming those challenges.
Vulvodynia is a common pelvic pain condition, and one that typically is associated with painful intercourse, or dyspareunia. (Arnold et al., 2006) It's estimated that by the age of 40, as many as 8% of women will have or have had a diagnosis of vulvodynia (Harlow et al., 2014), and this is clearly a significant quality of life issue.
Physical therapy has been shown to be successful in treating vulvar pain and pain with intercourse, including as part of a multidisciplinary approach. (Brotto et al., 2015) That's why Herman & Wallace is so eager to help empower more therapists to help patients live a life free of vulvar pain and dyspareunia. You can learn more about our courses and other resources at https://www.hermanwallace.com/continuing-education-courses.
Arnold, L. D., Bachmann, G. A., Kelly, S., Rosen, R., & Rhoads, G. G. (2006). Vulvodynia: characteristics and associations with co-morbidities and quality of life. Obstetrics and gynecology, 107(3), 617.
Brotto, L. A., Yong, P., Smith, K. B., & Sadownik, L. A. (2015). Impact of a multidisciplinary vulvodynia program on sexual functioning and dyspareunia. The journal of sexual medicine, 12(1), 238-247.
Harlow, B. L., Kunitz, C. G., Nguyen, R. H., Rydell, S. A., Turner, R. M., & MacLehose, R. F. (2014). Prevalence of symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of vulvodynia: population-based estimates from 2 geographic regions. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 210(1), 40-e1.
Nguyen, R. H., Turner, R. M., Rydell, S. A., MacLehose, R. F., & Harlow, B. L. (2013). Perceived stereotyping and seeking care for chronic vulvar pain. Pain Medicine, 14(10), 1461-1467.
As pelvic rehab providers, we may find it easy to talk to our patients about sexual function when it is a patient who comes to us with a sexually relevant problem or directly related diagnosis, such as dyspareunia or limited intercourse participation due to prolapse symptoms. However, are we talking to our other patients about sexual function? Are they talking to us about it? What about our orthopedic patients - are we routinely asking them about how their problem can affect their sexual function? Some recent studies found that 32% of patients planning to undergo a Total Hip Replacement (THR) had reported concerns about difficulties with sexual activityBaldursson, Wright. Was the fact that they could not participate in sexual activity due to the hip pain a driving factor when considering the hip replacement, maybe? Just because a patient doesn’t ask, does not mean that they don’t want to know how their orthopedic injury affects sexual function. Resuming sexual function is an important quality of life goal that is included on few outcome assessment forms, however, there are some that address this subject such as the Oswestry Disability Index for Low Back Pain. Discussion of this topic should be addressed more routinely than it is.
A good example of an orthopedic patient who may appreciate the discussion of their injury and sexual function may be a patient undergoing a total joint replacement. A patient who undergoes a total hip replacement (THR) likely has movement precautions for a set amount of time and we should educate these patients about when to resume sexual activity and what positions may be more comfortable and safe for them with their new hip. It would be terrible for a patient to suffer a hip dislocation or implant failure during sexual activity because they returned to sexual activity prematurely or did not think about their movement precautions. Our patients are thinking about it, but sometimes may be too embarrassed to bring it up. So as a physical therapist, bringing it up in a professional way can help ease the awkwardness your patient may be feeling about the topic. As physical therapists we generally have more time with the patient than the surgeon and this can help create a comfortable space to discuss these topics.
It is important to remember that just because a patient is not in our office for a directly related sexual problem, it is still important to at least open up the dialogue about sexual health. One study in 2013 had patients complete a questionnaire on their sexual function after undergoing a total hip or total knee replacement and 90% reported improved overall sexual functionRathod, et al.. We should try to make the conversation part of our routinely delivered information for a total joint replacement, for example when telling our THR patient, you can resume driving at 3-6 weeks (or when cleared by surgeon), you have Range of Motion precautions of avoiding internal rotation, hip flexion past 90 degrees, and hip adduction (crossing the legs) for the length specified by your surgeon (if it was a posterior approach THR), and you can resume sexual function at 3-6 weeks (or when cleared by the surgeon), or when you feel ready after that. It is important to give the patient some kind of guideline about when they can expect to resume sexual activity, however, always emphasize that it should be resumed when the patient is ready so they don’t feel pressured before they are ready. Also as pelvic rehab practitioners we can offer them guidance about what positions may be best for them when returning to sexual activity to put less strain on the prosthesis and hip as well as help them be comfortable. To continue with our example for THR (posterior approach) their precautions are likely to restrict hip flexion past 90 degrees, hip internal rotation, and adduction, so for a man or woman following THR lying on their back would be a safe position.
As physical therapists it is our job to provide guidance. Instead of telling people what not to do, helping them find a safe way to do things they want to do to maintain function should always be our goal. Sexual activity participation is definitely an important function for quality of life that is often overlooked and not discussed, so talk to your patient about it, they will likely appreciate it.
One useful tool to learn more about positioning for sexual activity is the Herman & Wallace product “Orthopedic Considerations for Sexual Activity.” It provides a great list of positions with pros and cons of each position, and is a helpful visual aid for your patients to help them return to sexual function safely with consideration of their respective injuries.
Baldursson, H., & Brattström, H. (1979). Sexual difficulties and total hip replacement in rheumatoid arthritis. Scandinavian journal of rheumatology, 8(4), 214-216.
Wright, J. G., Rudicel, S. A. L. L. Y., & Feinstein, A. R. (1994). Ask patients what they want. Evaluation of individual complaints before total hip replacement. Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, British Volume, 76(2), 229-234.
Rathod PA, Deshmuka AJ, Ranawat AS, Rodriguez JA. Sexual function improves significantly following total hip and knee arthroplasty: a prospective study. Program and abstracts of the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; March 19-23, 2013; Chicago, Illinois. Poster P023.
Sexual dysfunction is a common negative consequence of Multiple Sclerosis, and may be influenced by neurologic and physical changes, or by psychological changes associated with the disease progression. Because pelvic floor muscle health can contribute to sexual health, the relationship between the two has been the subject of research studies for patients with and without neurologic disease. Researchers in Brazil assessed the effects of treating sexual dysfunction with pelvic floor muscle training with or without electrical stimulation in women diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS.) Thirty women were allocated randomly into 3 treatment groups; 20 women completed the study. All participants were evaluated before and after treatment for pelvic floor muscle (PFM) function, PFM tone, flexibility of the vaginal opening, ability to relax the PFM’s, and with the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI). Rehabilitation interventions included pelvic floor muscle training (PFMT) using surface electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback, neuromuscular electrostimulation (NMES), sham NMES, or transcutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (TTNS). The treatments offered to each group are shown below.
|sEMG biofeedback||Sham NMES||Intravaginal NMES||TTNS|
|Group 1 (n=6)||X||X|
|Group 2 (n=7)||X||X|
|Group 3 (n=7)||X||X|
The following factors made up the inclusion criteria for the study: age at least 18 years, diagnosis of relapsing-remitting MS, and a 4 month history of stable symptoms. All of the participants were sexually active and were found to be able to contract pelvic floor muscles correctly. Group 1 patients were treated with “sham” electrical stimulation using surface electrodes placed over the sacrum at a pulse width of 50 ms and a frequency of 2 Hz. Patients in Group 2 used an internal (vaginal) electrode at 200 ms at 10 Hz. Group 3 were given transcutaneous tibial nerve stimulation at 200 ms and 10 Hz. All groups followed these treatments with pelvic floor muscle exercises using a vaginal sensor and biofeedback.
The authors concluded that pelvic floor muscle training alone or in combination with intravaginal neuromuscular electrostimulation or transcutaneous tibial nerve stimulation is effective in treating sexual dysfunction in women who have MS. Improvements were noted in these groups in sexual arousal, vaginal lubrication, satisfaction, and in the Female Sexual Function Index. While the numbers in the respective intervention groups is not large enough to determine the best option for patients who have multiple sclerosis, the research reminds us that neurostimulation in conjunction with pelvic muscle training may be very valuable.
Research published in a Nursing journal highlights the need for pelvic rehab providers to assess for sexual dysfunction in women before, during, and after pregnancy. 200 women were interviewed about their return to sexual activity after pregnancy and childbirth, and the results demonstrate that women can (and do) have limitations in their sexual function around the entire peripartum period.
The results of the survey concluded that before pregnancy 33.5% of the women reported sexual dysfunction, and this number increased to 76% during pregnancy, and to 43.5% following delivery. The types of sexual dysfunction included dyspareunia, vaginismus, and decreased desire and orgasm. The authors of the study correlated dysfunctions with Catholic religion, vaginal delivery without suture, dyspareunia during pregnancy, vaginismus before pregnancy, and with working more than 8 hours per day.
The information collected in this study raise important points with a variety of topics related to sexual function. How we as providers aim to address these topics with women can have a critical impact on the health of a woman and her family. Let’s look at some action items this research can lead us to:
This type of research can lead to many more questions, such as how religious beliefs impact sexual function during pregnancy, what the effect of physiologic changes versus fatigue can have on libido, or if women who have intervention for dyspareunia prior to pregnancy have decreased sexual dysfunction after pregnancy. Most of us were not instructed in how to dialog about these types of questions, and of course some topics, like religion, are potentially very sensitive to bring up with our patients.
If you would like more practical advice about the clinical implications for sexual medicine across the lifespan and among all genders, consider a trip to San Diego this November to learn from Herman & Wallace co-founder Holly Herman at Sexual Medicine for Men and Women: A Rehabilitation Perspective!
Holanda, J. B. D. L., Abuchaim, E. D. S. V., Coca, K. P., & Abrão, A. C. F. D. V. (2014). Sexual dysfunction and associated factors reported in the postpartum period. Acta Paulista de Enfermagem, 27(6), 573-578.
Peyronie’s disease is a condition in which there are fibrotic plaques (sometimes calcified) that can cause a curvature in the penis, most notable during erection. Pain as well as urinary and sexual dysfunction may occur with Peyronie's disease. Increased attention has been given in recent years to the relationship between male hormones, erectile dysfunction, and Peyronie's disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, testosterone, the predominant hormone affecting male physical characteristics, peaks during adolescence and early adulthood. Testosterone gradually decreases about 1% per year once a man reaches age 30-40. Some men experience symptoms from the decline in testosterone and these symptoms can include decreased sexual function, sleep disturbances changes in bone density and muscle bulk, as well as changes in cognition and depression. Because other factors and conditions can cause similar symptoms, patients with any of these changes should talk to their medical provider to rule out diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, depression, sleep apnea, and medication side effects, according to Mayo.
In an article published in 2012, Iacono and colleagues studied the correlation between age, low testosterone, fibrosis of the cavernosal tissues, and erectile dysfunction. 47 patients diagnosed with erectile dysfunction (ED) were included, with 55% of the 47 men being older than age 65. Having increased fibrosis corresponded to having a positive Rigiscan test- meaning that a nocturnal test of penile rigidity demonstrated abnormal nighttime erections. Low levels of testosterone also corresponded to erectile dysfunction. (This is an open access article with full text available) Another published article agreed with the above in that low testosterone is associated with Peyronie’s disease and/or erectile dysfunction. The authors are cautious, however, in describing the association between the variables, as causation towards plaque formation characteristic of Peyronie’s is not known.
The larger question about Peyronie’s disease is what a patient can do to improve the symptoms of the condition. Therapists who treat male patients are increasingly interested in this question, and many are working with their patients to address the known soft tissue dysfunction. Interventions may include teaching patients to perform soft tissue mobilizations and stretches to the restricted tissue, and educating the patient in what the available literature tells us about rehabilitation of this condition. Hopefully, as male pelvic rehabilitation continues to grow in popularity, more therapists will contribute case studies and participate in higher levels of research so that more men can add conservative care of Peyronie’s to their list of treatment options.
To learn more about what the literature tells us about Peyronie’s and other male pelvic rehabilitation conditions, the Male Pelvic Floor continuing education course is taking place in Seattle in November, and you won't want to miss it!
The research on pelvic pain and specifically on sexual dysfunction has focused on heterosexual women, leaving a large gap in the clinically-based evidence. A study published last year in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy aimed to narrow this gap by studying the characteristics of vulvar pain in women in a variety of relationships. The associations between qualities such as love and communication were evaluated in relation to the participants' perceptions of how pain influenced their relationships. Within the research report, the authors establish that pelvic pain commonly causes pain and limitation with sexual function, and that queer women (defined in their work as women who identify as something other than heterosexual) also experience pain with sexual function.
"Of the 839 women, 31% reported genital pain, with 12% of the women with genital pain in a same-sex relationship, 67% in a mixed-sex relationship, and 21% being single"
The women in the study provided information about demographics, experiences of genital pain and pain characteristics. They completed surveys including the Dyadic Trust Scale (measures trust in a close relationship), the Rubin Love Scale (assesses level of romantic love), and the Communication Subscale of Evaluation and Nurturing Relationship Issues, Communication and Happiness Marital Satisfaction Scale (measures level of communication). Participants' average age was 25, and of the 77% who were in a relationship, most (60%) were in a mixed-sex relationship. Average length of relationships was 3 years, with nearly 84% of the women being white with some level of higher education.
Of the 839 women, 31% reported genital pain, with 12% of the women with genital pain in a same-sex relationship, 67% in a mixed-sex relationship, and 21% being single. Of the 260 women reporting genital pain, 39% identified as heterosexual, 15% identified as lesbian, and 46% identified as bisexual. The most common pain locations reported were inside the vagina (48%), in the pelvis or abdomen (45%), at the vaginal opening (39%), and 21% of the women reported global vulvar pain. From the data, the authors also report that women in same-sex relationships were likely to report that tampon insertion was painful.
The authors point out that challenges to healing for women who identify outside of heterosexual are many, and can include:
- homonegativity and heterosexism at a medical provider's office
- failure to disclose sexual identity due to fear of negative interaction
- fear that a symptom is linked to a sexual practice
- being in an unsupportive relationship or having poor adjustment within relationship
The limited research on sexual pain in women in same sex relationships has highlighted strengths within the relationships as well. Women in same sex relationships have been noted to have more effective communications skills, which may in turn foster better understanding of conditions such as pelvic pain. The authors concluded that while the characteristics of vulvar pain were similar across groups, there was a difference in the perception of pain impact on relationships. Better communication for same-sex couples and more love for mixed-sex couples was positively associated with impact on relationship. Of the women reporting pain, nearly half of the participants indicated that the pain negatively impacted their relationship in general, and 64% reported that the pain interfered with sexual health.
This type of research provides insight for pelvic rehabilitation clinicians and adds to our data base of considerations when working with women. The truth is that most of us were not provided adequate training in how to evaluate and manage issues of sexual health, nor were we provided with the means to value our own sexuality as a normal and healthy part of being. This lack requires education to fill in our own gaps, so that we can be of best service to our patients. If we are able to be present and nonjudgmental, our patients can in turn share openly and provide information that can direct best care. Holly Herman, co-founder of the Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, offers a 2-day course in Sexual Medicine, so that providers can learn more about healthy sexuality as well as how to dialog with our patients.
The following comes to us from Herman & Wallace faculty member Michelle Lyons. Michelle travels the world spreading the word about pelvic rehabilitation and the powerful benefits it can have on a patient's everyday life. Michelle will be teaching her newest course, "Oncology and the Female Pelvic Floor: Female Reproductive and Gynecologic Cancers" in White Plains, NY this August 14 - 15. Join her to learn more about evaluating and treating oncology patients.
According to the Scientific Network of Female Sexual Health and Cancer, ‘Sexuality is an experience that really is at the intersection of mind, body and relationship, and cancer treatment can impact all three of those elements”. Dr Sharon Bober of Dana Farber says ‘Part of the problem is that doctors are so focused on saving a cancer patient's life that they forget to discuss issues of sexual health. My sense is that it's not about physicians or health care providers not caring about your sexual health or thinking that it's unimportant, but that cancer is the emergency, and everything else seems to fall by the wayside".
If you harness the power of Google to look up female sexual dysfunction after gynaecologic cancer, you may see phrases like ‘Possible sexual side effects…’ or ‘Cancer treatment can cause physical changes that make having sex more difficult’ or even ‘cancer treatments may make intercourse painful’. To call these descriptions ‘understatements’ does not really do them justice.
For many women post-gynaecological cancer, resuming sexual function can be a multi-faceted problem. Issues can range from dealing with Cancer Related Fatigue and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea to physical changes in the size and shape of the vaginal canal. Cancer treatments can also cause hormone imbalances and tissue damage. Add to this issues with post-surgical/radiation adhesions, a disruption to the ability to produce lubrication, challenges to the musculo-skeletal systems within the hips and the pelvis as well as the onset of medically induced menopause….well you get the picture.
In a 2009 paper, ‘Interventions for sexuality after pelvic radiation therapy and gynaecological cancer’, Katz talks about the fact that ‘…very little attention has been paid to the sexual difficulties women experience after radiation to the sexual organs. There are a limited number of interventions for the woman who has been treated for gynaecological cancer with radiation. These focus on the provision of information and some specific suggestions related to treating vaginal dryness, the need for vaginal dilatation after radiation therapy, and management of fatigue. In ‘A systematic review of sexual concerns reported by gynaecological cancer survivors’ (Abbot Anderson 2012), the author points out that common concerns in the physical dimension were dyspareunia, changes in the vagina, and decreased sexual activity.
In the psychological dimension, common concerns were decreased libido, alterations in body image, and anxiety related to sexual performance. And in the social dimension, common concerns were difficulty maintaining previous sexual roles, emotional distancing from the partner, and perceived change in the partner's level of sexual interest.
The good news is that you can return to a normal sex life after surviving gynaecological cancer – particularly with the help of a skilled pelvic rehab provider.
In part 2 of this blog series, I will look at specific interventions in sexual rehab for the gynaecological cancer survivor. Interested in learning more about pelvic rehab and oncology? Join me in White Plains in August!
A US study published in the International Society for Sexual Medicine last year reports on the available evidence linking cycling to female sexual dysfunction. In the article, some of the study results are summarized in the left column of the chart below. On the right side of the column, we can consider ideas about how to potentially address these issues.
|Examples of Research Cited
||Ideas for Addressing Potential for Harm|
|dropped handlebar position increases pressure on the perineum and can decrease genital sensation||encourage cyclists to take breaks from dropped position, either by standing up or by moving out of drops temporarily|
|chronic trauma can cause clitoral injury||encourage cyclists to wear appropriately padded clothing, to apply cooling to decrease inflammation, and to use quality shocks or move out of the saddle when going over rough roads/terrain when able|
|saddle loading differs between men and women||women should consider specific fit for bike saddles|
|women have greater anterior pelvic tilt motion||is pelvic motion on bike demonstrating adequate stability of pelvis or is there a lot of extra motion and rocking occurring?|
|lymphatics can be harmed from frequent infections and from groin compression||patients should be instructed in positions of relief from compression and in self-lymphatic drainage|
|pressure in the perineal area is affected by saddle design, shape||female cyclists with concerns about perineal health should work with a therapist or bike expert who is knowledgeable about a variety of products and fit issues|
|unilateral vulvar enlargement can occur from biomechanics factors||therapists should evaluate vulvar area for size, swelling, and evidence of imbalances in the tissues from side to side, and evaluate bike fit and mechanics, encouraging women to create more symmetry of limb use|
|genital sensation is frequently affected in cyclists, indicating dysfunction in pudendal nerve||therapists should evaluate female cyclists for sensory or motor loss, establishing a baseline for re-evaluation|
Because women tend to be more comfortable in an upright position, the authors recommend that a recreational (more upright) versus a competitive (more aerodynamic and forward leaning) position may be helpful for women when appropriate. Although saddles with nose cut-outs and other adaptations such as gel padding in seats are discussed in the article, the authors caution against making any distinct recommendations due to the paucity of literature that is available. The paper concludes that more research is needed, and particularly for considering the varied populations of riders ranging from recreational to racing.
Within a pelvic rehabilitation setting, applying all orthopedic and specific pelvic rehabilitation skills is necessary for women cyclists who present with pelvic dysfunction. Because injury to the perineal area including the pudendal nerve can have negative impact on function such as bowel, bladder, or sexual health, skills in helping a patient heal from compressive or traumatic cycling injuries is very valuable. To learn more about pudendal nerve health and dysfunction, the Institute offers a 2-day course titled Pudendal Neuralgia Assessment, Treatment and Differentials: A Brain/Pain Approach. This course is offered next in Salt Lake City in April, so sign up soon!
This post was written by H&W instructor Hollis Herman, DPT OCS WCS BCB-PMD IF AASECT PRPC, who authored and instructs the Sexual Medicine for Men and Women course. She will be presenting this course in Houston in January!
The Sexual Medicine course is perfect to help you, the healthcare professional, feel comfortable and knowledgeable about all sorts of sexual issues. The course is fun, interesting and unlike any other you have taken. It has 3 parts:
Part 1: This is designed to help you get in touch with your attitudes, beliefs, values and biases regarding sexual function. There are questionnaires to fill out and bring with you to the course, movies to watch and books to read. These questionnaires, movies, videos and books will bring up sexual subject matter, questions, images and ideas that may be controversial to you. You will be exposed to many variations in sexual activity and asked your reactions, sexual development, upbringing, feelings and worries you may carry around. In other words, bringing up issues that are potentially keeping you from being as helpful as possible to your patients, yourself, and your own relationship. It sounds scary, but it is not at all because you share only what you want to.
Part 2: Designed to provide you with a solid knowledge foundation regarding: the different phases of the female and male sexual response cycles, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, Peyronie’s disease, postnatal body changes, post prostatectomy issues, oral, anal, vaginal sexual practices, LGBTQ issues, aging and sexual issues, toys, lubricants, sexual abuse, female and male genital surgeries, psychological practices of CBT and EMDR. The information will help you confidently answer questions and concerns you and your patients have.
Part 3: This part of the course contains lab activities to learn clinical manual skills. External manual techniques for the pelvis only.
The underlying premise of this course is that healthy active sexual practices are a vital human right however they play out.
Watch movies, clips on you tube, read fiction and non-fiction, look at images, listen to songs and open yourself to your own thoughts, feelings, reactions and memories. Have a great time learning!