It’s St Valentine’s day this week – you may have noticed hearts and flowers everywhere you look and a general theme of love and romance. For many women going through cancer treatment, sex may be the last thing on their mind…or not! Women who are going through treatment for gynecologic cancer are often handed a set of dilators with minimal instruction on how to use them, or as one patient reported, they are told to have sex three or four times a week during radiation therapy ‘to keep your vagina patent’. As a pelvic rehab practitioner with a special interest in oncology rehab, I know that we can (we must!) do better, in helping women live well after cancer treatment ends.
As Susan Gubar, an ovarian cancer survivor, writes in the New York Times ‘…It can be difficult to experience desire if you don’t love but fear your body or if you cannot recognize it as your own. Surgical scars, lost body parts and hair, chemically induced fatigue, radiological burns, nausea, hormone-blocking medications, numbness from neuropathies, weight gain or loss, and anxiety hardly function as aphrodisiacs…’
Although sexual changes can be categorised into physical, psychological and social, the categories cannot be neatly delineated in the lived experience (Malone at al 2017). The good news? Pelvic rehab therapists not only have the skills to enhance pelvic health after cancer treatment and are ideally positioned to be able to take a global and local approach to the sexual health difficulties women may face after cancer treatment ends, but there is also a good and growing body of evidence to support the work we do. Factors to consider include physical issues leading to dyspareunia, including musculo-skeletal/ orthopaedic, Psychological issues, including loss of libido and other pelvic health issues impacting sexual function such as faecal/ urinary incontinence, pain or fatigue.
Curing cancer but not addressing life-altering complications can be compared to feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving but turning your back on them the rest of the year. We love hearing positive outcomes of a surgery, but we are not always aware of what happens beyond that. Colorectal cancer is often treated by colectomy, and sometimes the survivor of cancer is left with urological or sexual dysfunction, small bowel obstruction, or pelvic lymphedema.
Panteleimonitis et al., (2017) recognized the prevalence of urological and sexual dysfunction after rectal cancer surgery and compared robotic versus laparoscopic approaches to see how each impacted urogenital function. In this study, 49 males and 29 females underwent laparoscopic surgery, and 35 males and 13 females underwent robotic surgery. Prior to surgery, 36 men and 9 women were sexually active in the first group and 13 men and 4 women were sexually active in the latter group. Focusing on the male results, male urological function (MUF) scores were worse pre-operatively in the robotic group for frequency, nocturia, and urgency compared to the laparoscopic group. Post-operatively, urological function scores improved in all areas except initiation/straining for the robotic group; however, the MUF median scores declined in the laparoscopic group. Regarding male sexual function (MSF) scores for libido, erection, stiffness for penetration and orgasm/ ejaculation, the mean scores worsened in all areas for the laparoscopic group but showed positive outcomes for the robotic group. In spite of limitations of the study, the authors concluded robotic rectal cancer surgery may afford males and females more promising urological and sexual outcomes as robotic.
Husarić et al., (2016) considered the risk factors for adhesive small bowel obstruction (SBO) after colorectal cancer colectomy, as SBO is a common morbidity that causes a decrease in quality of life. They performed a retrospective study of 248 patients who underwent colon cancer surgery, and 13.7% of all the patients had SBO. Thirty (14%) of the 213 males and 9 (12.7%) of the 71 females had SBO; consequently, they found patients being >60 years old was a more significant risk factor than sex regarding occurrence of SBO. The authors concluded a Tumor-Node Metastasis stage of >3 and immediate postoperative complications were found to be the greatest risk factors for SBO.
When I work prn in inpatient rehabilitation, I have access to each patient’s chart and can really focus on the systems review and past medical history, which often gives me ample reasons to ask about pelvic floor dysfunction. So, of course, I do. I have yet to find a gynecological cancer survivor who does not report an ongoing struggle with urinary incontinence. And sadly, they all report that they just deal with it.
Bretschneider et al.2016 researched the presence of pelvic floor disorders in females with presumed gynecological malignancy prior to surgical intervention. Baseline assessments were completed by 152 of the 186 women scheduled for surgery. The rate of urinary incontinence (UI) at baseline was 40.9% for the subjects, all of whom had uterine, ovarian, or cervical cancer. Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) was reported by 33.3% of the women, urge incontinence (UI) by 25%, fecal incontinence (FI) by 3.9%, abdominal pain by 47.4%, constipation by 37.7%, and diarrhea by 20.1%. The authors concluded pelvic floor disorders are prevalent among women with suspected gynecologic cancer and should be noted prior to surgery in order to provide more thorough rehabilitation for these women post-operatively.
Ramaseshan et al.2017 performed a systematic review of 31 articles to study pelvic floor disorder prevalence among women with gynecologic malignant cancers. Before treatment of cervical cancer, the prevalence of SUI was 24-29% (4-76% post-treatment), UI was 8-18% (4-59% post-treatment), and FI was 6% (2-34% post- treatment). Cervical cancer treatment also caused urinary retention (0.4-39%), fecal urge (3-49%), dyspareunia (12-58%), and vaginal dryness (15-47%). Uterine cancer showed a pre-treatment prevalence of SUI (29-36%), UUI (15-25%), and FI (3%) and post-treatment prevalence of UI (2-44%) and dyspareunia (7-39%). Vulvar cancer survivors had post-treatment prevalence of UI (4-32%), SUI (6-20%), and FI (1-20%). Ovarian cancer survivors had prevalence of SUI (32-42%), UUI (15-39%), prolapse (17%) and sexual dysfunction (62-75%). The authors concluded pelvic floor dysfunction is prevalent among gynecologic cancer survivors and needs to be addressed.
As I read about male phimosis, I thought about a shirt that just won’t go over my son’s big noggin. I tug and pull, and he screams as his blond locks stick up from static electricity. Ultimately, if I want this shirt to be worn, I either have to cut it or provide a prolonged stretch to the material, or my child will suffocate in a polyester sheath. This is remotely similar to the male with physiological phimosis.
In a review article, Chan and Wong (2016) described urological problems among children, including phimosis. They reported “physiological phimosis” is when the prepuce cannot be retracted because of a natural adhesion to the glans. Almost all normal male babies are born with a foreskin that does not retract, and it becomes retractable in 90% of boys once they are 3 years old. A biological process occurs, and the prepuce becomes retractable. In “pathological phimosis” or balanitis xerotica obliterans, the prepuce, glans, and sometimes even the urethra experience a progressive inflammatory condition involving inflammation of the glans penis, an unusually dry lesion, and occasional endarteritis. Etiology is unknown, but males by their 15th birthday report a 0.6% incidence, and the clinical characteristics include a white tip of the foreskin with a ring of hard tissue, white patches covering the glans, sclerotic changes around the meatus, meatal stenosis, and sometimes urethral narrowing and urine retention.
This review article continues to discuss the appropriate treatment for phimosis (Chan & Wong 2016). Once phimosis is diagnosed, the parents of the young male need to be educated on keeping the prepuce clean. This involves retracting the prepuce gently and rinsing it with warm water daily to prevent infection. Parents are warned against forcibly retracting the prepuce. A study has shown complete resolution of the phimosis occurred in 76% of boys by simply stretching the prepuce daily for 3 months. Topical steroids have also been used effectively, resolving phimosis 68.2% to 95%. Circumcision is a surgical procedure removing foreskin to allow a non-covered glans. Jewish and Muslim boys undergo this procedure routinely, and >50% of US boys get circumcised at birth. Medical indications are penile malignancy, traumatic foreskin injury, recurrent attacks of severe balanoposthitis (inflammation of the glans and foreskin), and recurrent urinary tract infections.
Many therapists transition to treating men with the knowledge and training from female patients. When therapists apply this knowledge, for the most part, it works. When we spend some attention on learning what is a bit different, we might be drawn to the superficial muscles of the perineum. This old anatomy image does a wonderful job of "calling it like it is" or using anatomical terms that describe an action versus naming only the structure. In the image we are looking from below (inferior view) at the perineum and genitals. Just anterior to the anus we can see the anterior muscles within the urogenital triangle, with the base of the shaft of the penis located just anterior to (above in this image) the anus and perineal body. Notice that at the midline, we see muscle names the "accelerator urine". Modern textbooks refer to this muscle as the bulbocavernosus, or bulbospongiosus. Taking the name of accelerator urine, we can understand that this muscle will have an effect on aiding the body in emptying urine. It does this through rhythmic contractions, most often noted towards the end of urination, when the typical spurts of urine follow a more steady stream. This assistance with emptying can take place because the urethra is located within the lower part of the penis, the portion known as the corpus spongiosum. Because the bulbocavernosus muscle covers this part of the penis, and the inferior and lateral parts of the urethra are virtually wrapped within the bulbocavernosus, the muscle can have an effect on emptying the urine in the urethra.
Notice that if you follow the fibers of the accelerator urine muscle towards the top of the image, where the penis continues, you will notice fibers of the muscle wrapping around the sides of the penis. These fibers will continue as a fascial band that travels over the dorsal vessels of the penis. This allows the muscle to also have a significant action during sexual activity, in which blood flow (getting blood into, keeping blood in, and letting blood out of the penis) is paramount.
On either side of the penis we can see what is labeled the erector penis. As these muscles cover the legs, or crura which form the two upper parts of the penis, when the muscles contract, blood is shunted towards the main body of the penis. This of course helps with penile rigidity, as the smooth muscles in the artery walls of the penis allow blood to fill the spongy chambers.
At a hair salon, I once saw a plaque that declared, “I’m a beautician, not a magician.” This crossed my mind while reading research on radical prostatectomy, as knowing the baseline penile function of men before surgery seemed challenging. Restoring something that may have been subpar prior to surgery can be a daunting task, and it can cause discrepancies in results of clinical trials. Despite this, two recent studies reviewed the current and future penile rehabilitation approaches post-radical prostatectomy.
Bratu et al.2017 published a review referring to post-radical prostatectomy (RP) erectile dysfunction (ED) as a challenge for patients as well as physicians. They emphasized the use of the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF) Questionnaire to establish a man’s baseline erectile function, which can be affected by factors such as age, diabetes, alcohol use, smoking habits, heart and kidney diseases, and neurological disorders. The higher the IIEF score preoperatively, the higher the probability of recovering erectile function post-surgery. The experience of the surgeon and the technique used were also factors involved in ED. Radical prostatectomy is a trauma to the pelvis that negatively affects oxygenation of the corpora cavernosum, resulting in apoptosis and fibrotic changes in the tissue, leading to ED. Minimally invasive surgery allows a significantly lower rate of post-RP ED with robot assisted radical prostatectomy (RARP) versus open surgery. The cavernous neurovascular bundles get hypoxic and ischemic regardless of the technique used; therefore, the authors emphasized early post-op penile rehabilitation to prevent fibrosis of smooth muscle and to improve cavernous oxygenation for the potential return of satisfactory sexual function within 12-24 months.
Clavell-Hernandez and Wang2017 [and Bratu et al., (2017)] reported on various aspects of penile rehabilitation after radical prostatectomy. The treatment with the most research to support its efficacy and safety was oral phosphodiesterase type-5 inhibitors (PDE5Is), which help relax smooth muscle and promote erection on a cellular level. Sildenafil, vardenafil, avanafil, and tadalafil have been studied, either used on demand or nightly. Tadalafil had the longer half-life and was considered to have the greatest efficacy. Nightly versus on-demand for any PDE5I was variable in its results. Intracavernosal injection (ICI) and intraurethral therapy using alprostadil for vasodilation improved erectile function, but it caused urethral burning and penile pain. Vacuum erection devices (VED) promoted penile erection via negative pressure around the penis, bringing blood into the corpus cavernosum. There was no need for intact corporal nerve or nitric oxide pathways for proper function, and it allowed for multiple erections in a day. Intracavernous stem cell injections provided a promising approach for ED, and they may be combined with PDE5Is or low-energy shockwave therapy. Ultimately, the authors concluded early penile rehabilitation should involve a combination of available therapies.
Speaking with a runner friend the other day, I mentioned I was writing a blog on yoga for pelvic pain. She had the same reaction many runners do, stating she has doesn’t care for yoga, she never feels like she is tight, and she would hate being in one position for so long. Ironically, neither of us has taken a yoga class, so any preconceived ideas about it are null and void. I told her yoga is being researched for beneficial health effects, and one day we just might find ourselves in a class together!
Saxena et al.2017 published a study on the effects of yoga on pain and quality of life in women with chronic pelvic pain. The randomized case controlled study involved 60 female patients, ages 18-45, who presented with chronic pelvic pain. They were randomly divided into two groups of 30 women. Group I received 8 weeks of treatment only with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDS). Group II received 1 hour, 5 days per week, for 8 weeks of yoga therapy (asanas, pranayama, and relaxation) in addition to NSAIDS (as needed). Table 1 in the article outlines the exact protocol of yoga in which Group II participated. The subjects were assessed pre- and post-treatment with pain scores via visual analog scale score and quality of life with the World Health Organization quality of life-BREF questionnaire. In the final analysis, Group II showed a statistically significant positive difference pre and post treatment as well as in comparison to Group I in both categories. The authors concluded yoga to be an effective adjunct therapy for patients with chronic pelvic pain and an effective option over NSAIDS for pain.
In the Pain Medicine journal, Huang et al.2017 presented a single-arm trial attempting to study the effects of a group-based therapeutic yoga program for women with chronic pelvic pain (CPP), focusing on severity of pain, sexual function, and overall well-being. The comprehensive program was created by a group of women’s health researchers, gynecological and obstetrical medical practitioners, yoga consultants, and integrative medicine clinicians. Sixteen women with severe pelvic pain of at least 6 months’ duration were recruited. The group yoga classes focused on lyengar-based techniques, and the subjects participated in group classes twice a week and home practice 1 hour per week for 6 weeks. The Impact of Pelvic Pain (IPP) questionnaire assessed how the participants’ pain affected their daily life activities, emotional well-being, and sexual function. Sexual Health Outcomes in Women Questionairre (SHOW-Q) offered insight to sexual function. Daily logs recorded the women’s self-rated pelvic pain severity. The results showed the average pain severity improved 32% after the 6 weeks, and IPP scores improved for daily living (from 1.8 to 0.9), emotional well-being (from 1.7 to 0.9), and sexual function (from 1.9 to 1.0). The SHOW-Q "pelvic problem interference" scale also improved from 53 to 23. The multidisciplinary panel concluded they found preliminary evidence that teaching yoga to women with CPP is feasible for pain management and improvement of quality of life and sexual function.
In the world of pelvic health, we are constantly meeting patients who are surprised to learn about the scope of what we do. Oftentimes, it is because we mention the pelvic muscles’ roles in sexual health that a patient will offer up symptoms with their sexual health, or ask a few more questions. Outside of pelvic health professionals asking about sexual function, do men bring up these issues with anyone? Not usually. In Fisher and colleagues 2-part “Strike up a conversation” study (2005), the authors reported that men who have erectile dysfunction (ED) are worried about their partner’s reaction, don’t want to admit to having a chronic problem, and frankly, just don’t even know where to start. Unfortunately, the partners of men who have ED have the same concerns. In addition, partners are worried about bringing it up and “making their partners feel worse about it.” When men did bring up sexual concerns with their physician, although they reported feeling nervous and embarrassed, they also reported feeling hopeful and relieved.
This issue was highlighted in a recent interview and article published on National Public Radio. The article shares that for war veterans, sexual intimacy is often affected, and yet, is often ignored. A Marine who suffered PTSD after a head injury and shrapnel to the head and neck describes how he had to go to the doctor several times just to work up the nerve to ask for help for his sexual dysfunction. He also shared how it was difficult to talk about “…because it contradicts a self-image so many Marines have.” Apparently you don’t have to be a Marine to feel the same intense pressure related to talking about sexual issues. I have spent more time in the past year trying to better understand why men don’t discuss these issues, with a best friend or partner, and each time, my question of “what would that be like if you brought it up?” is met with near bewilderment, as if revealing this issue were akin to revealing your deepest, darkest secret. Apparently, it is. Telling a buddy you have erectile dysfunction, for men, seems to be like showing your enemy where the chink in your armor is, or like setting yourself up to be the center of every “getting it up” joke for the remainder of your life.
The bottom line is that we can be part of the solution to this problem, because men must be certain that their medical provider knows about any emerging or worsening erectile dysfunction. Loss of libido, or changes in erectile function can be associated with heart issues, with diabetes, or with other major medical concerns. Research such as the referenced “strike up a conversation study” has demonstrated that health care providers or partners may positively influence a patient’s access to care. Once medical evaluation has been completed, the role of the pelvic health provider is critical in improving sexual health for men with dysfunction. If you are interested in learning more about the role of the pelvic health provider for erectile dysfunction or pain related to sexual function, the Male Pelvic Health continuing education course will be offered 3 times this year through the Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute. Your next opportunity to learn about urinary and prostate conditions, male pelvic pain, sexual health and dysfunction is next month in Portland, Oregon.
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.
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.