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.
At the peak of my racing career I won awards in all my races from 5k to marathon. While warming up I would scope out my competition, intimidated by muscular females wearing outfits to accentuate their physiques. Many times, appearance out-weighed running capacity. In a similar manner, one strong pelvic floor contraction produced by a female athlete does not always mean she has the endurance to stay dry in the long run.
Brennand et al. (2017) researched urinary leakage during exercise in Canadian women. A summary of their findings concluded that skipping, trampoline, jumping jacks, and running/jogging were most likely to cause leakage. To combat the problem, 93.2% emptied their bladder just before exercise, 62.7% required voiding breaks during exercise, and 37.3% actually restricted their fluid intake to minimize leakage. While 90.3% of women who reported leakage impacted their activity just decreased their intensity, 80.7% avoided the activity entirely. Many women used pads (49.2%). Interest in pelvic floor physiotherapy to improve their UI was high (84.6%), but 63.5% of women still sought pessary or surgical management. Unfortunately, 35.6% of the women had no idea treatment was even an option.
Nygaard & Shaw (2016) reviewed and summarized the cross-sectional studies regarding the association between physical activity and pelvic floor disorders. Trampolinists, especially those in the 3rd tertile of competition, even those who were nulliparous, experienced greater leakage. Competitive athletes in the highest quartile of time exercising were found to have 2.5 times the amount of urinary incontinence (UI) as the lowest inactive quartile; however, 2nd and 3rd quartile recreational athletes had no difference in UI compared to inactive women. Type and dosage of exercise were both factors in UI risk. Various studies showed habitual walking decreased UI in older women, moderate exercise decreased the risk of UI, and no exercise increased the risk of UI. The incidence of UI being related to having performed strenuous exercise early in life has been limited and variable, with one study of Norwegian athletes and US Olympians not having any greater UI later in life, while another showed middle-aged women who used to exercise 7.5 hours per week had a higher incidence of UI. This review also reported athletes had a 20% greater cross sectional area of the levator ani muscle and a greater pubovisceral muscle mean diameter; however, the pelvic floor strength recorded was lower than non-athletes.
While running on my treadmill, I watched a commercial advertising specially designed pads as “the solution” for women athletes who “leak” during their sport. Before my introduction to Herman and Wallace Rehabilitation Institute, I would have rushed to the nearest store to buy a case of them. When we don’t know how to fix a problem, we tend to cling to bandages to cover them, allowing us to ignore them. With 29 years of running and racing and 2 natural childbirths under my belt, leaks have happened, and it is common. However, leaks due to urinary stress incontinence are not normal and do not stop simply because you place a contoured, sporty, sanitary pad in the lining of your shorts.
A 2016 cross-sectional study by Ameida et al. investigated urinary incontinence (UI) and pelvic floor dysfunctions (PFD) such as constipation, anal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, vaginal laxity, and dyspareunia in female athletes who participate in high-impact sports. The 67 amateur athletes and 96 non-athletes completed an ad hoc survey to determine PFD symptoms. Artistic gymnasts, trampolinists, swimmers, and judo participants were among the athletes with the highest risk of urinary incontinence. Although the athletes had a higher risk of UI, they reported less constipation, less straining to relieve themselves, and less manual assistance for defecation than the non-athletes. The authors were able to conclude that high impact sports or sports requiring a strong effort put athletes at risk for UI, uncontrolled gas expulsion, and even sexual dysfunction. They emphasize a need for attention to be given to pelvic floor training for rehabilitation as well as preventative strategies and education for high risk yet asymptomatic athletes.
In 2015, DaRoza et al. performed a cross-sectional cohort study to determine the urinary leakage in 22 young female trampolinists based on the volume of their training and level of ranking. Leakage was assessed by the International Consultation on Incontinence Questionnaire Short-Form (ICIQ-UI-SF), and another questionnaire determined each athlete’s championship ranking and training volume. An astounding 72.7% of girls reported urine leakage since starting to perform on the trampoline, and the greatest severity was significantly associated with the highest training volume. The impact of UI on the athlete’s quality of life was greatest in this 3rd tertile. The authors recommended these athletes with a high frequency of UI be educated on the impact of their sport on their pelvic floor muscles and proposed they get treated by pelvic health professionals to minimize or resolve the incontinence.
Perhaps you have seen the Facebook post by Alan Naughton (March 5, 2015) where a horse with one zebra leg tells another horse, “I can’t say I’m entirely pleased with my hip replacement.” Although this post makes some people laugh, I imagine surgical candidates cringe at the thought of complications. Few people hop onto a surgeon’s schedule with great enthusiasm. While hip replacements are sometimes inevitable for quality of life, other hip pathologies can be successfully treated with more conservative measures.
A case report in Manual Therapy (Lewis, Khuu, & Marinko 2015) described how postural correction and alternation of movement patterns were able to reduce hip pain secondary to acetabular dysplasia. A 31-year old female acute care nurse developed anterior hip pain with no trauma, and acetabular dysplasia as well as a labral tear were found. She got temporary relief of her constant ache and occasional sharp, intense pain from an intra-articular injection of cortisone. Her functional complaint was the pain prevented her from returning to recreational running. Intervention involved correcting the subject’s slight hip and knee hyperextension and posterior pelvic tilt with swayback posture, cueing her to walk on the treadmill with slight anterior pelvic tilt and contraction of the abdominals. This decreased her pain while walking from 6/10 to 2/10. Correction of the swayback posture decreased the hip flexion moment, decreasing stress on the anterior hip. At three months and then one year after the initial visit, she was relatively pain free. She still had pain with running, so she was advised to decrease her stride length and take shorter steps as well as decrease her hip extension by pushing off her feet more to minimize anterior hip joint reaction forces. With these cues, she was able to run without pain. Luckily for her, she had declined the option of acetabular reorientation surgery.
MacIntyre et al., (2015) presented a case study on conservative management of femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) in a retired 22 year old elite ice hockey goaltender. A 4-year history of left anterior hip pain forced him into early retirement. He was diagnosed with longitudinal acetabular labral tears with a cam-type FAI. Before considering surgery, he had to undergo physical therapy, which he did 1-2 times per week for 6 weeks. Treatment consisted of Active Release Technique (ART)® and soft tissue therapy with tools directed to the affected gluteal , iliopsoas, and adductor muscles and fascial planes, spinal manipulation of the right sacroiliac joint, left hip capsule distraction/release using the Mulligan concept, contemporary medical electroacupuncture, and extensive rehabilitation exercises for lumbopelvic stability. After 8 visits, he had no pain at rest or with exercise. At 8 weeks he returned to playing ice hockey and now plays competitively again with no need for surgery.
When I bring up the topic of pelvic floor dysfunction in athletes, stress urinary incontinence (SUI) is usually the first aspect of pelvic health that springs to mind – and rightly so, as professional sport is one of the risk factors for stress urinary incontinence Poswiata et al 2014. The majority of studies show that the average prevalence of urinary incontinence across all sports is 50%, with SUI being the most common lower urinary tract symptom. Athletes are constantly subject to repeated sudden & considerable rises in intra-abdominal pressure: e.g. heel striking, jumping, landing, dismounting and racquet loading.
What’s less often discussed is the topic of gastrointestinal dysfunction in athletes. Anal incontinence in athletes is not well documented, although a study from Vitton et al in 2011 found a higher prevalence than in age matched controls (conversely a study by Bo & Braekken in 2007 found no incidence). More recently, Nygaard reported earlier this year (2016) that young women participating in high-intensity activity are more likely to report anal incontinence than less active women.
A presentation by Colleen Fitzgerald, MD at the American Urogynecologic Society meeting in 2014 highlighted the multifaceted nature of pelvic floor dysfunction in female athletes, specifically in this case, triathletes. The study found that one in three female triathletes suffers from a pelvic floor disorder such as urinary incontinence, bowel incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. One in four had one component of the "female athlete triad", a condition characterized by decreased energy, menstrual irregularities and abnormal bone density from excessive exercise and inadequate nutrition. Researchers surveyed 311 women for this study with a median age range of 35 – 44. These women were involved with triathlete groups and most (82 percent) were training for a triathlon at the time of the survey. On average, survey participants ran 3.7 days a week, biked 2.9 days a week and swam 2.4 days a week.
Since the passing of Title IX in 1972, which protects people from sex discrimination in education or activity programs receiving federal funding, the number of females participating in sports has greatly increased. The National Federation of State High School Associations states that in 2011 nearly 3.2 million girls are participating in high school sports.
Unfortunately, a consequence of this increased participation in sports is a higher prevalence in urinary incontinence (UI) and stress urinary incontinence (SUI) in female athletes. Borin et al looked at the ability of nulliparous female athletes to generate intracavity perineal pressure in comparison to nonathletic women. The study demonstrated that higher mean pressures were generated by nonathletic women in comparison to the athletic women group and that lower perineal pressures in the athletic women were also related to number of games per year and time spent on sport specific workouts and strength training workouts. UI and SUI are underreported in the general population and also in the athletic population. As health care professionals it is important to screen for UI and SUI in our clients. Physical therapy interventions using pelvic floor muscle rehabilitation have shown to decrease the severity of UI and SUI (Rivalta et al, Hulme). Rivalta used internal methods to improve the function of the pelvic floor muscle. Hulme’s success was achieved through activation of the pelvic floor muscles’ extrinsic synergists.
Pilates is often used in physical therapy as a therapeutic tool to improve lumbar stability with studies showing increases in abdominal strength (Sekendiz), trunk extensor endurance (Sekendiz) and to improve posture (Kloubec). Pilates is often also used in pelvic floor muscle rehabilitation and can easily be modified for low level clients. For example the use of resistance can assist supporting the weight of the leg. Practical proof, while lying supine in neutral lumbar spine position, stretch an arm and a leg away from center, notice the difficulty to maintain neutral spine. Now hold a resistance strap, which is also attached to the foot, and notice how maintaining neutral lumbar spine is easier to maintain (pictured above).
Exercise in pregnancy is a loaded topic. We commonly see images of women doing vigorous exercise in late pregnancy accompanied by judgmental statements about the safety of such activity not only for the woman, but also for the baby. Many myths persist about exercise in pregnancy, and it’s our role as health care specialists to educate women about what is known about exercising. Holly Herman, co-founder of the Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute, has been educating providers about this topic for most of her career. Anyone lucky enough to take a course on pregnancy and postpartum issues from Holly Herman knows that her style of teaching is effective and her passion is contagious. From Holly’s use of patient stories to wonderful humor, you can really “get it” when it comes to clinical concepts and strategies. One of Holly’s clinical pearls that really stuck with me after learning about exercise and pregnancy is the research completed by James Clapp in his book “Exercise in Pregnancy”. In short, the book dispels the myth that women shouldn’t exercise in pregnancy and in fact reports on the benefits of exercise to both Mom and baby for labor, delivery, and beyond. In signature style, Holly held this book up in front of the class and to great laughter said, “And this is the book you should buy for your mother-in-law.”
Another myth that has been perpetuated in relation to pregnancy, labor and delivery is the notion that exercising can make the pelvic floor muscles short, tight, and more narrow, making delivery more difficult. In an article we reported on previously about women being “too tight to give birth” the authors concluded that strong pelvic floor muscles do not lead to challenges with birthing. (Bo et al., 2013) In a more recent article that addressed this issue, Kari Bo and colleagues studied 274 women for levator hiatus (LH) width to see if exercising in late pregnancy did in fact narrow this space. At week 37 of gestation, the exercisers were measured to have a significantly larger LH than the non-exercisers. (Exercisers were defined as women who exercised 30 minutes or more 3 times per week versus the non-exercisers.) The authors conclude that there were not any significant differences in labor outcomes or in delivery outcomes between the groups. (Bo et al., 2015)
Without a doubt, the patient’s obstetrician gives primary direction to the patient when any high-risk issues are present. Most women however, are basing their exercise choices on experience, on misinformation, myths, or popular opinion. It is our responsibility to engage women in conversations about her health, wellness, and fitness, and to appropriately counsel on exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Most of us lacked proper education about this important population in our primary graduate training, and therefore must seek out information to fill in the gaps. If you are interested in filling in any gaps, join us at one of our peripartum courses around the country. Your next opportunities to take these courses are: Care of the Postpartum Patient - Seattle, WA Mar 12, 2016 - Mar 13, 2016 Care of the Pregnant Patient - Somerset, NJ Apr 30, 2016 - May 1, 2016 Care of the Pregnant Patient - Akron, OH Sep 10, 2016 - Sep 11, 2016
A few years ago, I was convinced my left hip pain was due to osteoarthritis. When my hip locked up after a 14 mile run, my manual therapist husband differentially diagnosed the pain as discogenic. Partly in denial and partly wanting to know the extent of the “damage,” I got an x-ray of my left hip, which was completely normal, and a lumbar MRI, which wasn't pretty. The source of my hip pain was a disc bulge at L3-4 and L4-5 with a Schmorl's node at L5-S1 to boot. Instead of riding the train of thought that we treat what hurts, therapists need to disembark and look further for the source, as suggested in the course, “Finding the Driver in Pelvic Pain.”
A case report published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy by Livingston, Deprey, and Hensley (2015) documents the discovery of a deeper problem than the referring diagnosis of greater trochanteric pain syndrome. A 29 year old female had to stop running because of lateral hip pain that began 3 months after increasing the intensity and frequency of her running and low impact plyometrics. She had pain in sitting and while running. During the evaluation, she demonstrated a positive Trendelenburg, weak and painless hip abductors, and a positive single leg hop test on concrete. When the pain was not elicited with single leg hop on a foam surface, the patient was referred back to the physician for magnetic resonance imaging. The patient was later diagnosed with an acetabular stress fracture. The therapist’s thorough examination helped prevent possible avascular necrosis or a more traumatic fracture of the pelvis.
In a 2013 issue of the same journal, Podschum et al. presents a case report on deciphering the diagnosis in a female runner with deep gluteal pain with pelvic involvement. A 45 year old female marathon runner reported pulling her hamstring and complained of left ischial tuberosity pain with aching into the gluteal and pubic ramus regions that eventually forced her to stop running. She had pain in sitting and could not tolerate speed work. She had a history of low back and pelvic floor pain, with an MRI showing osteitis pubis, a lateral L3-4 bulge, and facet hypertrophy at L4-5. The physical therapist ruled out lumbar disc lesion, radiculopathy, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and hip labral tear with special tests. Initial treatment focused on the differential diagnoses of hamstring syndrome and ischiogluteal bursitis based on subjective complaints and objective findings. After 4 visits, her deep ache shifted to the inferior pubic ramus in sitting as the ischial tuberosity pain diminished. A trained therapist then conducted a thorough pelvic floor exam. Pelvic floor hypertonic dysfunction was diagnosed and took over the “driver’s seat” as the focus for the rest of the treatment of this patient. Symptoms resolved and the patient returned to running marathons without any of her initial presenting symptoms.
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.