Founders and Faculty > Holly Tanner, PT, DPT, MA, OCS, WCS, PRPC, LMP, BCB-PMD, CCI
Men who present with chronic pelvic pain frequently have symptoms referred along the penis and into the tip of the penis, or glans. Symptoms may include numbness, tingling, aching, pain, or other sensitivity and discomfort. The tip of the penis, or glans, is a sensory structure, which allows for sexual stimulation and appreciation. This same capacity for valuable sensation can create severe discomfort when signals related to the glans are overactive or irritating. One of the most common complaints with this symptom is a level of annoyance and distraction, with level of bother worsening when a person is less active or not as mentally engaged with tasks. Wearing clothing that touches the tip of the penis (such as underwear, jock straps, jeans, or snug pants) may be limited and may worsen symptoms. When uncovering from where the symptoms originate, the culprit is often the dorsal nerve of the penis, which is sensible given that the glans is innervated by this branch of the pudendal nerve. If we consider this possibility (because certainly there are other potential causes) we find that there are many potential sites of pudendal nerve irritation to consider. First, let’s visualize the anatomy of the nerve.
Following the usually accepted descriptions of the dorsal nerve, we know that it is a terminal branch of the pudendal nerve that primarily is created from the mid-sacral nerves. This can lead us to include the lumbosacral region in our examination and treatment, yet in my clinical experience, there are other sites that more often reproduce pain in the glans. As the dorsal nerve branches off of the pudendal, usually after the location of the sacrotuberous ligament, it passes through and among the urogenital triangle layers of fascia where compression or irritation may generate symptoms.
As the nerve travels towards the pubic bone, it will pass inferior to the pubic bone, a location where suspensory ligaments of the penis can be found as well as pudendal vessels and fascia. This is also a site of potential compression and irritation, and palpation to this region may provide information about tissue health. Below is a cross-section of the proximal penis, allowing us to see where the pudendal nerve and vessels would travel inferior to the pubic bone.
In 2007, after only speaking on the phone and never meeting in person, my new friend and colleague Stacey Futterman and I presented at the APTA National Conference on the topic of male pelvic pain. It was a 3 hour lecture that Stacey had been asked to give, and she invited me to assist her upon recommendation of one of her dear friends who had heard me lecture. I still recall the frequent glances I made to match the person behind the voice I had heard for so many long phone calls.
Upon recommendation of Holly Herman, we took this presentation and developed it into a 2 day continuing education course, creating lectures in male anatomy (we definitely did not learn about the epididymis in my graduate training), post-prostatectomy urinary incontinence, pelvic pain, and a bit about sexual health and dysfunction. Although it truly seems like the worst imaginable question, we asked each other “should we allow men to attend?” As strange as this question now seems, it speaks volumes about the world of pelvic health at that time; mostly female instructors taught mostly female participants about mostly female conditions.
Make no mistake- women’s health topics were and are deserving of much attention in our typically male-centered world of medicine and research. Maternal health in the US is dreadful, and gone are the days when providers should allow urinary incontinence or painful sexual health to be “normal”, yet it is often described as such to women who are brave enough to ask for help. Times have changed for the better for us all.
As someone who has spent nearly two decades marketing myself, my practice, or practices for employers, I have learned a lot of skills by trial and error. One of my favorite strategies to expand my professional network is to “Follow the Patient.” By this I mean to follow the patient to a specialist consult, to a procedure, or to a referral that you helped to coordinate. This must be done with the patient in mind, first and foremost, and then also the provider and their practice environment, so as not to have that practice shut the door on you in the future. Of course, this process can look different if you are in a health network because as an insider, you will likely be more welcome and have all the right credentials in order to simply attend a patient’s provider visit. If you are in a private practice, there are sometimes more hoops and permissions to negotiate. Following are some tips I have learned about this strategy of nurturing referral sources.
Offer the idea to the patient and see if they are open to it. It might sound like this: “If you are interested, I may be able to accompany you to your upcoming appointment. Does that interest you?” It’s very important that the patient is consenting to you being in attendance at their appointment, as the visit is for them. It may be best to not promise that you can clear your schedule, or coordinate the visit, but finding out if the patient is open to the idea is the first step.
2. Check in with the provider’s office. This can be accomplished by you or by the patient. This might sound like this: “I’d like to be sure that your provider would welcome me at your appointment. Would you prefer to contact the provider’s office or shall I?” In my experience, the provider’s office will say “if it’s ok with the patient, it’s fine with us!” Typically, a patient can bring whomever they like to an appointment, so that’s not much of an issue, unless there is close quarters or some other limiting scenario. The good thing about giving a heads up is it allows the provider’s office the opportunity to know that you may be joining your patient. I was able to follow a patient into a hernia repair surgery, and the nurses were so surprised that a physical therapist was in the prep room, they asked me “does the doctor know you are here?” in which case I was able to affirm that I indeed had permission from the surgeon.
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.
Preterm birth can have deleterious health effects not only for the child, but also for the mother. A child may be born so early that various health systems are not matured, leading to susceptibility and delay in development and growth. Maternal health may also be severely impacted, with conditions such as anxiety and psychological stress. Managing the prevention of a pre-term delivery can be stressful and challenging for a pregnant woman, and authors Ha & McDonald (2016) report that this issue is not well studied. A cross-sectional survey was completed to find out not only what a woman’s preferences and concerns are, but also to find out which recommendations were likely to be followed by the patient. This is important, the authors state, because women who are actively involved in medical decisions are more likely to feel satisfied with their childbirth experience.
The survey was completed by 311 women at a median of 32 weeks gestation. Mean age was 30.9, and the majority of them identified as European/White-Caucasian. Most of them were married or in a common-law relationship and had received some level of post-secondary education. The majority of women who were told they were at increased risk of preterm labor (PTL) preferred close-monitoring rather then PTL prevention. Of interest is that the majority of women reported they would use other sources of information besides their primary provider, with the most reported source being the internet or family and friends. This point begs the question of how high is the quality level or accuracy of the available information on the internet or in the general public? Common available options for prevention included progesterone, cerclage, and pessary use. If a woman is not interested in using recommended prevention strategies, the goal of the rehabilitation clinician should be to, on a constant basis, monitor for symptoms and signs of early labor, and encourage the patient to keep any recommended provider appointments, and stay in close contact with her provider so that close-monitoring may be carried out.
An additional goal for rehabilitation is to provide the mother with strategies that may assist her in managing her anxiety, stress, movement dysfunctions, sleep, and other activities. Prior research has validated the benefits of relaxation training in pre-term labor: a cost-effective, low risk and easily implemented strategy. Training women in such a tool during pregnancy fits well into the rehab provider’s scope, and can be instructed in the clinic (or home!) for home program implementation. Larger newborns, longer gestations, and higher rates of prolonged gestations have been recorded when using relaxation training training for pre-term labor.Janke et al., 1999) Chuang et al. (2012) have documented fewer admissions to neonatal intensive care unit, decreased rates of extreme pre-term birth, and shorter stays in hospital with use of relaxation training. Meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, visualization, and movement within recommend medical limits may all be valuable tools that make up a part of a patient’s rehabilitation experience. In an article describing how prenatal meditation influences infant behaviors, yoga, singing, and massage therapy are all cited methods for improving maternal and/or fetal health.Chan, 2014
“To me it felt like I was just sitting on bed rest, waiting to have a seizure, you know, waiting to start circling the drain.” “Every time I went to the doctor I had this…anxiety attack.” These are the words of pregnant women diagnosed with preeclampsia and on bed rest. Other phrases reported by the authors who interviewed women on bedrest included “…an impending doom…”, “…meltdown…”, “nervous wreck.” A few of the major themes that emerged in the interviews was that of negative thoughts and feelings, family stressors, and not being heard. And while using the term “crazy” is not truly appropriate, women who are forced to abruptly stop interacting and participating in their typical life activities must be regarded as being very high risk for more than just physical issues. Kehler et al., 2016
In an ideal situation, bed rest during pregnancy is prescribed to help keep the mother and fetus healthy. Unfortunately, bed rest in itself is associated with potentially negative consequences in physical and mental health, and providers are not always up-to-date on changing recommendations for bedrest. Perhaps the cautious attitude of providers towards minimizing risk guides some choices. In addition, many women describe frustration about lack of clear guidelines, difficulty managing their stressful feelings, and varying degrees of support from medical providers.
During pregnancy-related bed rest, research has described how the entire family is affected. Physically, the mother may have changes in her circadian rhythms, increased anxiety, depression, and hostility. The rest of the family can also experience and demonstrate stress. Other children may act out, partners may be more stressed and worried, and financial strain may be a concern. Bigelow & Stone, 2011 Although we as rehab professionals may not have solutions for every issue, we may be able to facilitate accessing resources and at a minimum hear what a woman is dealing with during this stressful time. Many women, even when on bedrest, are allowed to attend medical appointments such as physical therapy, and should be provided with appropriate physical and mental activities to help minimize muscle atrophy and stress. Home health or hospital-based providers are also in a perfect position to educate providers on the value of referrals while the patient is at home or in the hospital.
Polycystic ovarian disease (PCOS), also known as Stein-Leventhal syndrome, is an endocrine system disorder that affects women of reproductive age. The disease is associated with some major adverse health issues including infertility, diabetes, metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that increase risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes), cardiovascular issues and endometrial carcinoma. Because, according to Okamura et al., those with PCOS share risk factors for endometrial cancer and atypical endometrial hyperplasia, early detection and treatment are critical for optimal health outcomes. Some of the primary shared risk factors include obesity, not bearing any children (nulliparity), infertility, hypertension, diabetes, chronic anovulation, and unopposed estrogen supplementation.
One study (Malcolm2017) that addressed reproductive health comparisons among young women with and without PCOS found that although women diagnosed with PCOS had significant concerns about their reproductive health, they were found to be as sexually active as young women without PCOS. Unfortunately, women with PCOS were more likely to have pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which could increase the risk of infertility. In this study, the importance of counseling in safe sex practices such as condom use and sexually transmitted infection screening was highlighted.
As weight loss in women diagnosed with PCOS has been shown to improve blood sugar levels, exercise and healthy weight management strategies can also be keystones of care. Vasheghani-Farahani et al report on a home-based exercise program with positive outcomes in health for women with PCOS. The women in this study were ages 15-40, with 16 patients in the exercise group and 14 in the control group. Blood pressure, waist to hip ratio, BMI, blood tests for insulin factors, sex hormones, and markers of inflammation made up outcomes measures at baseline and again at 12 weeks following intervention. The active group completed aerobic and strengthening exercises and were found to have an improved waist to hip ratio as well as reductions in cardiovascular risk profiles.
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.
With menopause and the hormonal shifts that take place, some women suffer more than others with symptoms such as hot flashes. If you have ever been near someone during a hot flash, you know that this curious condition is more than feeling a little hot under the collar. During a hot flash, women will suddenly disrobe, wake from a deep sleep covered in sweat (so much so that they have to change the sheets!), or otherwise appear distressed and oftentimes suffer interference in whatever activity in which they were engaging. As we reported in an earlier post, women on average may have hot flashes for 5 years after the date of her last period. Some women (up to 1/3 in the referenced study) will report hot flashes for 10 or more years after menopause.
Hot flashes and night sweats also significantly disrupt sleep, according to research by Baker and colleagues. Menopausal women with insomnia may also have higher levels of psychologic, somatic, vasomotor symptoms, and score lower on the Beck Depression Inventory, and sleep efficiency and duration scores. Poor sleep can be associated with morbidity such as hypertension, stroke, diabetes and depression, so interrupted sleep is more than an inconvenience, but potentially a serious health issue.
A more recent study linked anxiety as a potential risk factor for menopausal hot flashes. In 233 women who are premenopausal at baseline and who were followed for at least a year after their final menstrual cycle, anxiety symptoms, hormone levels, hot flashes and other psychosocial variables were assessed. During the 14 year follow-up 72% of the women reported having moderate to severe hot flashes, and the researchers correlated somatic anxiety as a potential predictive association with anxiety. Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as stomach ache, increased heart rate, sweating, muscle aches.
Posture is a concept that rehab clinicians have long hung our hats on, and yet updated models of evaluation and care take into account the truth that there are plenty of humans functioning in poor postures who do not complain of musculoskeletal pain or other dysfunctions. Is postural dysfunction always, or never, causative? As with many things in life, the answer is likely somewhere in between. If our patient arrives at the clinic with a dysfunctional posture and improving their alignment eases discomfort and improves function, we have provided help with addressing posture. It is also likely that we have spent a bit too much time lecturing on the elusive “ideal” posture, when in fact dynamic and adaptive postures are more often occurring throughout a person’s day. Certainly computer postures add to a patient’s movement challenge, and we continue to learn more about the best ways for patients to manage the otherwise potentially static and unhealthy positions that add to many of our patients’ issues.
In regards to the pelvic floor, does changing standing lumbopelvic posture affect pelvic floor muscle (PFM) activation? This is the question asked by researchers from Queen’s University in Canada. (Capson et al., 2011) Sixteen women ages 22-41 who had never given birth and who were continent participated in the study. They were assessed completing five tasks in three different postures: normal lumbopelvic posture, hyperlordosis, and hypolordosis. The tasks included quiet standing, maximal effort cough, Valsalva maneuver, pelvic floor maximal voluntary contraction, and a load-catching activity. A vaginal sensor was to use to collect electromyographic activity of the pelvic floor, and sensors were placed on trunk muscles including the rectus abdominus, external and internal obliques, and erector spinae. A perineometer was utilized separately to record manometry measures, and 3D motion analysis was used to position women in the appropriate lumbopelvic angles. Key results of the investigation are summarized below:Baseline EMG activity of the PFMs and the trunk muscles was significantly lower in supine versus standingPFM EMG activity in standing hypolordotic was higher than normal or typical postureTrunk muscle EMG activity did not significantly change during the 3 quiet standing postures For maximal PFM contraction and for cough, Valsalva, and load-catching, lower EMG activity was measured in standing in hyperlordotic or hypolordotic postures compared to “normal” or habitual postureWith cough, all muscles except the erector muscles demonstrated increased activityIn general, EMG activity was increased in trunk muscles when the subjects were in their habitual postureRelated to timing of the rectus abdominus (RA) muscles, the RA were activated 106 ms before the PFMIn standing, the intravaginal pressure was significantly higher in the hypolordotic posture compared to hyperlordotic posture
How can we put this valuable research to work in the clinic? This study validates a typical EMG activity finding of increased activity during standing versus lying, which makes sense given the pelvic tasks of working against gravity. In addition, it may be the case that our patients can generate an optimal amount of pelvic muscle contraction (when strengthening) in a more neutral posture. It may also be worth considering that for our patients who are chronically holding, perhaps a tendency for them to be in a hypolordotic posture is perpetuating their dysfunction. The data on timing of trunk and pelvic floor muscles was less consistent, although not less interesting. This research can also be implemented as an evaluation and intervention in the clinic- let’s be sure that we are using methods of feedback such as EMG, real-time ultrasound, or pressure biofeedback in various and functional positions. Then we can find out what seems to work best for our patient, whether the goal is to increase or decrease muscle activity and function.