“There is arguably no other muscle in the human body that is so central literally and figuratively to our physical, biochemical and emotional health as the diaphragm. From its obvious role in respiration to its less obvious roles in postural stability, spinal decompression, fluid dynamics, visceral health and emotional regulation, the diaphragm has a repertoire of function that is broad by any muscle’s standard.”– Matt Wallden MSc Ost Med, BSc (Hons) Ost Med, DO, ND doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.03.013
It became obvious early on in my career that the diaphragm was central to the rehabilitation of not just the spine, but of all four limbs as well. What wasn’t as obvious at the time was the fact that the diaphragm has a function or an influence on every system of the body. Once I wrapped my head around this, I started to include diaphragmatic breath as a component, if not the first component, of every patient’s treatment plan. Similar to myself as a new grad, I find that many people don’t quite understand how important diaphragmatic breath is and let’s face it, focusing on breath is pretty boring especially when you are looking to decrease pain and get strong. But once you know the why behind it all, I think you will start questioning any health professional that doesn’t put an emphasis on diaphragmatic breath.
Before I dive into what the diaphragm does, let’s talk about where the diaphragm comes from as in what tissue it is derived from when we are a ball of cells turning into a tiny human in utero. There are 5 major contributors to the formation of the diaphragm:
I know there are a lot of big words in there and for anyone that isn’t an anatomy nerd like myself, that list may mean nothing to you which is totally fine. Here is the big take away: the tissues that form the diaphragm come from the neck and also go to form the sac around the heart, the esophagus, the abdominals, pelvic floor and muscles in the neck. This can give us a little insight into how connected the diaphragm is to the neck, abdomen, heart, esophagus and pelvic floor. It also means that dysfunction in the diaphragm can result in heart problems, swallowing issues, neck pain, incontinence and spinal instability.
Ok let’s get into what the diaphragm looks like once we are all grown up or at least out of our mama’s belly. Many research articles go into ridiculous anatomical detail describing the diaphragm, I will spare you all of those words and highlight some fascinating anatomical connections that may give light into how this muscle has interplay with so many surrounding structures.
First off, it’s important to note that the diaphragm is a dome shape at rest and flattens when it contracts. This is unlike most muscles in our body other than the pelvic floor. The diaphragm supports the lungs and heart from above while sitting on top of the liver and stomach below. The front portion is connected to the tip of our sternum (xiphoid process), the side portion is attached to the inside surface of our lower 6 ribs and the back portion is attached to the upper segments of the low back in addition to the arcuate ligaments that extend out to both sides and wrap around the trunk. This means that any rib or lumbar spine dysfunction will influence the diaphragm’s ability to contract and relax and vice versa. It’s also important to note that the arcuate ligament fascia is blended with the quadratus lumborum, psoas and transversus abdominis so any disruption in these muscles could either drive or be caused by diaphragm dysfunction.
The diaphragm also has ligaments that attach the muscle to the viscera. This includes an attachment to the base of the lungs, one to the heart, two to the liver and a few to the intestines. Whoa right?! I hope you are starting to grasp how connected the diaphragm is to practically everything above and below it on a structural level.
The diaphragm is also connected to most everything through its neural innervation aka what nerves make up the pathway for a signal to come from the brain to the muscle and back to the brain. The diaphragm receives both motor and sensory signals from the phrenic nerve which is comprised of spinal nerves C3, C4 and C5 (sometimes C6). These spinal nerves are also involved in making up the cervical and brachial plexus so any abnormal signaling from the diaphragm may alter motor control in the neck and into the shoulder and arm. This implies that shoulder and neck pain could be a symptom of diaphragm dysfunction.
The pathway of the phrenic nerve gives even further insight into what can influence messages sent to and from the diaphragm. Upon exiting the spine, the phrenic nerve goes through the anterior scalene muscle. This muscle is located at the front of the neck and is very vulnerable to injury with whiplash. It is also put under a large amount of stress with forward head posture.
The phrenic nerve later blends with the vagus nerve as it passes through the opening in diaphragm on its way down into the abdomen. This is how diaphragmatic breath can assist in “massaging” the vagus nerve thus putting our body in rest and digest mode instead of fight or flight. I mean that function alone makes diaphragmatic breath worth any effort it takes to find it.
“The diaphragm is one of the most remarkable areas of the body in that it has so much influence and the consequences of its dysfunction can manifest anywhere from the head to the toes”Caroline Stone. Science in the art of osteopathy. Osteopathic prin- ciples and practice. Stanley Thornes Ltd, Cheltenham 1999.
You would think I would be done there but we haven’t even talked about the actual functions of the diaphragm yet! Let’s start with the most obvious role as the prime mover of breathing. When the diaphragm contracts (flattens) it creates a negative pressure in the chest to draw air in. Then when it relaxes (domes) it pushes air out. It is designed to match the demands of an activity and controls our ability to go from whispering to yelling.
While I consider respiration to be absolutely essential to human life, my main interest in diaphragmatic function has always been its role in postural stability because it is most directly correlated with pain-free function.
When the diaphragm contracts, it increases intra-abdominal pressure which then stabilizes the spine but studies have also shown that the diaphragm contracts to stabilize regardless of the phase of respiration. In other words, the diaphragm stabilizes the spine indirectly through intra-abdominal pressure but also directly through stiffness generated by a contraction.
Research has demonstrated that the diaphragm is one of the first muscles to contract in preparation to lift something or move a limb. It has also been shown that individuals with limited ability to contract their diaphragm for stabilization and those with uncoordinated diaphragm activation have a higher likelihood of back pain.
While the diaphragm is able to perform respiration and stabilization at the same time, the stabilizing contraction will decrease as the respiratory demand increases. This makes sense in that our ability to breathe and oxygenate our brain is far more important than spinal stability for survival so it’s the first to go. Those that have low back pain are shown to have earlier respiratory fatigue aka the stabilizing function drops off sooner at lesser respiratory loads.
In my opinion, the most surprising function of the diaphragm is its role in swallowing, vomiting and prevention of stomach contents refluxing up into the esophagus. I was amazed not by the what but the how of this function.
There are actually two parts of the diaphragm, the crural portion and the costal portion. Up to this point I have been mostly talking about the costal portion which is the perimeter of the muscle. The central portion in the crural part.
But that’s not the cool part. These two parts actually work separate of each other to allow for swallowing and vomiting. For example, in vomiting, the crural (central) part relaxes to allow for ejection of the stomach contents while the costal (outer) part contracts with the abdominals to increase intra-abdominal pressure to force the contents outward. Crazy right?! The vagus nerve is what innervates the crural portion of the diaphragm so sympathetic tone could be a contributor to acid reflux.
The diaphragm is also the primary mover of organs. I included the video above to illustrate just how much movement occurs in an individual that diaphragmatically breathes. This massaging of the organs is important not only for proper organ function but also for the drainage of lymph (fluid). Sixty percent of lymph nodes are located just under the diaphragm. The rhythm of diaphragmatic breath stimulates the cleansing of these nodes by creating negative pressure pulling the lymph fluid back into the lymphatic system.
Contraction of the diaphragm also narrows the diameter of the vena cava thus assisting in the return of blood back to the heart. Therefore, if someone has swelling in their lower limbs, diaphragmatic function should be assessed.
There are a few ways the diaphragm effects the cardiovascular system. As I just mentioned above, it promotes venous return by narrowing the vena cava but it also does this by creating a pressure gradient facilitating the flow of blood back to the heart. This effect is maximized in slow and deep respiration. Another connection already noted is the ligament that goes from the heart to the diaphragm. This means that a lack of diaphragmatic movement may reduce the ability of the heart to contract and therefore impair blood circulation.
Heart rate is also heavily influenced by respiration. On an inhale heart rate increases and it decreases on an exhale. This cyclic change in heart rate is known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and is thought to improve gas exchange in the lungs.
If we just look at heart rate as it is measured through pulse, diaphragmatic breath decreases it by reducing sympathetic (fight or flight) activity. This is accomplished by stimulation of the vagus nerve and activation of the hering-breur reflex through an increase in tidal volume (amount of air passing through lungs).
The separation between heart and emotional influence of the diaphragm is a blurry line. A local entity called Heartmath (https://www.heartmath.com) has done a ton of research connecting stress to an increase in what they call heart rate variability which is the amount of change in heart rate between inhalation and exhalation aka RSA. They have shown through extensive research that heart rate variability (and therefore our stress response) is improved with diaphragmatic breath. Blood pressure and other parameters of cardiac function are also improved. The overall conclusion is that emotional states affect the diaphragm and vice versa, the degree of which is measured through RSA. If any of you have the Apple Watch, it uses heart rate variability (aka RSA) as a trigger to remind you to breath. And I’m sure most of you have experienced this connection in life. When under acute stress, your breath will shorten and move upward into your chest while your heart rate increases. If you haven’t been aware of this up to this point, pause for a moment the next time you are stressed. Acknowledge the sensation of this physiological shift and then focus on diaphragmatic breath to return back to homeostasis. Its powerful stuff.
The diaphragm is also the muscle that is responsible for the expression of emotions so it makes sense that it is a key component of somatoemotional release techniques. Physical expression of stress and emotions occurs when we don’t release them. The act of crying involves a sharp inhale (aka a diaphragmatic contraction) followed by a pause and then wailing followed by further gasps of air and further wailing. The gulps of air are diaphragmatic contractions and the wailing is an abdominal contraction with diaphragmatic relaxation. The act of crying is pain/emotional tension being exported from the nervous system. If we don’t cry and we hold our breath, the diaphragm may hold this tension while the abdominals are off and distended. Long story short, this isn’t good.
“By (diaphragm) action we live, and by its failure we shrink, or swell, or die”Andrew Still. Philosophy of osteopathy. Mo: A.T. Still, Kirksville 1899.
So why spend all this time learning about the diaphragm and all it does? Most of us don’t diaphragmatically breathe. In fact 83% of those with anxiety have a dysfunctional breathing pattern. And who isn’t anxious these days? In other words, this information is applicable to almost every single one of you. So the next time we start your treatment working on breath, you will know exactly why.
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As a manual therapist, I never thought I would be writing about Telehealth let alone offering it but thanks to the coronavirus, here we are. I started offering virtual appointments because there was simply no other choice. Even though physical therapy is part of the essential list, I had to reflect on whether it was absolutely essential and furthermore, whether seeing people in my gym was mandatory in providing effective care. I started to research the efficacy of virtual physical therapy and was surprised to find that the results are just as positive if not more effective in some patient populations. Then I started seeing patients virtually and got to have first hand experience of what research indicates. I figured that if I needed convincing Telehealth was a viable option for physical therapy, I’m sure my current patients and even prospective ones are hesitant as well. So here is what research and my own experience says about virtual physical therapy. In a nutshell, don’t knock it before you try it and it’s worth giving it a try. A virtual visit will, more likely than not, help and it is guaranteed to be better than not doing physical therapy at all.
Before I started providing Telehealth appointments, I had two major concerns: 1) how was I going to be able to properly evaluate, assess and diagnose without being able to perform most special tests or palpate? and 2) how was I going to be effective in treating my patients if manual therapy wasn’t an option?
I was happy to find a lot of research regarding my first concern. In a typical evaluation, a physical therapist starts with what we call a subjective interview. This is when we ask very targeted questions almost like a detective to understand the nature and behavior of a person’s pain. From this we generate a hypothesis (or a few) and then we use special tests and movement assessments (referred to as the objective exam) to confirm or deny our hypotheses. I would add that I double confirm through treatment and reassessment. So what does research say? First off, it shows that special tests are not specific or sensitive in provoking the tissues or structures that they are said to. This means that they aren’t accurate enough to rule in or rule out much of anything. In fact, 50% of the time a therapist changed their diagnosis to the wrong one after performing the objective exam. With that said, a physical therapist was able to accurately diagnose 7 out of 8 patients with just their subjective exam. Upon reflection, I have to agree from my clinical experience as well. I very rarely change my hypothesis after my subjective interview. And when I do, its because of the response to treatment rather than any objective measurement or special test. Palpation should also be included in this. The consensus is that palpation is not reliable (regardless of experience level) unless it is pain provoking which has been shown to be clinically significant. The good news: I can direct a patient to self palpate for pain and any use of palpation for further diagnostics isn’t shown to be useful whether it was me or my patient doing the palpating so we can be ok with just skipping it.
Research regarding my second concern is a bit more complicated. Most of the research provided by Telehealth proponents is all about disproving manual therapy as being an effective modality but I am not out to undermine the value of hands on treatment that has clinically worked for my patients thus far. If you look at ALL of the research regarding manual therapy, these are the conclusions that have been made:
So what does all that mean? There are two take aways: 1) palpation and manual therapy are not absolutely necessary for proper diagnosis or effective treatment and 2) in not seeing a patient physically, the patient is required to be independent in their home exercise program thus increasing their self-efficacy and control of their own pain. The research regarding self-efficacy really hit home for me and was ultimately why I started not only being ok with treating virtually but actually excited about the possibilities that might come out of it. Being a manual therapist, I often find it challenging for patients to be compliant and learn to become effective in their home exercise program because they know they can just come see me if they need it to be fixed again. In this respect, I think being forced into Telehealth is actually providing a great opportunity for patients to start being in complete control of their own pain, rehab and health. Having had several virtual appointments under my belt, I can also say that it is challenging me to teach patients manual techniques that I would have previously never considered possible for a patient to do on their own at home. It is opening my eyes to how truly independent patients can be and I will definitely be taking this into my practice even when I start to see patients face-to-face again.
At this point I can say that I provide virtual physical therapy not only because I have to, but also because I am confident I can deliver an effective service that results in a reduction of pain, improved functional outcomes and long term benefit for my patients. Sooooooo, “see” you soon?
Need to hear if from someone else?
“Jenny is amazing. I was in urgent need of a Physical Therapist for a sudden hip issue. A friend recommended Jenny, so I reached out. I had never met her, but I emailed her on Friday. By Sunday morning, she and I had a fabulous online session (she said I was her first client over the internet, but she made the whole session so clear and visible that I felt like I was right there with her.) She remembered everything that we talked about and followed up with an email summary and videos showing me everything I needed to do. I have already recommended Jenny to so many of my friends because I have never met any Physical Therapist so in tune and dedicated. She not only saw the most current situation with my hip, but she also found underlying issues and causes that I would never have imagined. I am looking forward to our next online session for continued strengthening help and advice. I started out afraid that I would need a hip replacement at age 55. I left with my spirits high, hopeful and excited.”
– New Patient
“I think the Telehealth video experience worked well with Jenny Putt. We were able to identify new areas to address on my tibia/fibula/ankle issue. Jenny was able to instruct me by example on her leg and the skeleton to manipulate my bone area in the front of my leg related to ankle/tibia/knee tracking. We then used a small ball to work on the inflammation issues on the outside and inside of my lower leg to ankle. Her instructions were clear and I felt that a lot was accomplished. I would recommend working with Jenny through Telehealth to continue to work on issues during the Coronavirus shelter in place and beyond. Thank you Jenny!”
– Existing Patient
Oh man. Strange times. In some respects, that’s all that needs to be said. We are all on information overload with everything related to COVID-19 these days. The numbers and rates, the precautions, the closures, the predictions and survival guides. So why produce more content? Two reasons: one is that it’s becoming more and more clear that this is just the beginning of something we need to settle into for the long haul. If that is indeed the case, I think it’s important to have a strategy and plan for comfortably and effectively doing so. Secondly, I think this is an opportunity. A lot of us have been given the gift of time with the shelter-in place order. It’s a chance to finally be able to start prioritizing priorities. A time to form lasting habits that we should have been doing long before the coronavirus arrived and should continue to do long after our lives return to some version of normal again.
My research on this started with one goal in mind: avoid getting and spreading the coronavirus aka do my part to flatten the curve. In addition to taking the shelter-in order seriously, I wanted a strong immune system. But I was also functioning on a high level of stress, anxiety and panic which has more power to suppress an immune system than any multivitamin can counter. The wellness formula didn’t stand a chance and I knew it. So I invested my time and energy into figuring out how to deal with the challenges of today in a way that would result in physical and mental strength and resilience and therefore, a strong AF immune system. In the end, I basically developed a how to guide for finding health and happiness in the face of adversity. Here is what I have learned and have put into practice as well as the research to back it all up. In living this out, I have found more resonance than I had prior to this pandemic. These things are all habits I should have prioritized a long time ago. I can thank this pandemic for giving me no choice but to finally do what I have needed all along. I am sure to live a happier, healthier and longer life for it.
Stop watching the news.
This was a big game changer for me. It was the first step I took and it gave me the space and the capacity to do everything else. I still think it is important to be informed so that you know what guidelines to following but that requires very little exposure to the news. Pick one reliable resource that you can check in with quickly to get what you need and then move on. There is an abundance of research that links watching the news with compromising the emotional well-being of viewers especially when the coverage is of traumatic or negative content (for example, a pandemic). Increased frequency of viewing the news is associated with anxiety, depression, uncontrolled fear, pessimism, irrational beliefs and sleep difficulties. Negative news has even been shown to exacerbate a range of personal concerns that aren’t even related to the viewed content. None of us need that right now! You might also want to consider limiting your time on social media if it has a similar effect on your affect. Research shows that social media often results in comparisons that lower our self-esteem and increase depression. Two things that are also of no use to us right now.
Have a schedule. Prioritize your priorities.
Did you know that an affluence of time makes us happier than an affluence of money? I don’t know about you but I very quickly found myself with an excess of time and a shortage of money when the shelter-in place was ordered. At first all I felt was panic and distress. Our society makes us think that money is a measurement of our success and therefore our happiness but the opposite is actually true. It wasn’t until I developed a schedule that I could actually feel the happiness associated with having time. Sure, my schedule may only consistent of meditate, yoga, play with kid, work a little, get outside and exercise but by having them scheduled into my day, I wake up with a plan and I get them all done. Before having a schedule I would start the day having no clue what to do with my time which would spiral me into thinking about how I wasn’t able to do anything I used to. There is also a certain kind of joy that comes from being able to stray from the schedule without any negative consequences. It lets me be in the moment with each thing I’m doing without worrying about making it to the next one. I believe this is what they are referring to when they say time affluence is bliss.
I’ve always been a bit scared off by meditation. I can barely sit still and the idea of silence for any period of time sets my mind off racing to my to-do list which would in turn just stress me out more. Needless to say, I have avoided it up to this point. But then I started to research different methods of meditation and the science behind it. Ashok Gupta describes meditation as a shower for your brain. A way of cleaning it out, getting rid of anything not needed, allowing your brain to start a day fresh and light. Now that sounded like something that might be worth figuring out. I began to play around with different guided meditations and visualizations. The body scan has never worked for me. Neither has counting with awareness of the breath. But in my search, I came across a plethora of strategies. They all have the same goal: mind control with a detachment from your thoughts. It’s just a matter of finding what strategy gets you there and once you do, its freeing. I can literally go from heart racing panic to calm cool and collected in a matter of minutes. It’s a miracle drug and research even proves it as such. Most of today’s diseases can be attributed to a breakdown in our immune system because of stress. The ability to separate our body from our thoughts through meditation can prevent all physiological consequences of stress therefore boosting our immune system and preventing disease. One mechanism of this is through diaphragmatic breathing which stimulates the vagus nerve and can bring us out of the fight or flight mode. The other is that by not being attached to our thoughts, our body never takes on the stress of them therefore avoiding fight or flight in the first place. So its no wonder why extensive research shows mind-body therapies decrease inflammation, improve immune function and reduce sickness through minimizing physiological manifestations of stress and anxiety.
This is a recommendation I give pretty much everyone all the time, and this time is no different. If anything, it’s even more important today than every before. Our bodies were meant to move. Increasing your heart rate for 30 minutes a day has been shown to decrease chronic pain and working out 3x a week has been shown to be just as effective as Zoloft in treating depression. There is also a ton of research that associates exercise with boosting immune function. So get moving! The key is to keep it light to moderate for right now. High intensity workouts tend to speed up gains but they are also a stress on the system and can actually compromise immune function. So less is more during this time of high environmental stress. If possible, make it outside as well. Walking 20-30 minutes a day with exposure to direct sunlight has been shown to improve immune efficiency and living close to the natural environment has been linked to many long term health benefits so lets take advantage of living in a Santa Cruz. Nature is at our doorstep! And if you’re not in Santa Cruz, just look a little harder. Nature is everywhere even in the middle of a metropolis.
Eat nutritious, unprocessed foods.
Diet is it’s own rabbit hole so I like to keep it extremely simple. Eat nutrient dense real food. If you wanted to take it a step further, I would recommend limiting sugar, alcohol and refined carbohydrates because they are inflammatory by nature. There might be reason to decrease your caffeine intake as well if you find it increases your anxiety. I would also increase your fruit and veggie intake in addition to drinking a lot of water. Research has shown those that eat 5 or more servings of fruit and veggies had an 82% greater antibody response when compared to those eating 3 servings so when I say increase, I mean load that plate up! Research has shown that what we eat does matter and is a large determinant of our immune system function. Some research does support the use of vitamin A, B, C and D supplements (zinc as well) to boost immune defense but I believe these vitamins are more available when they come from food. Research has also shown that sunlight is more effective than vitamin D supplements. But if you aren’t great about eating a lot of fruits and veggies or getting outside, probably best to take a multi-vitamin to fill in the gaps. I also boost my immune system with a blend of herbs (the wellness formula is my preferred but there are many out there).
Connect to those you love.
Even introverts like myself need social connection. Physical distancing is not social isolation. Connect with your loved ones, family and neighbors as often as possible. We are so fortunate this is happening at a time where most everything can be done virtually. We have a deep-seated need to feel trusted and loved and this feeling of connectedness increases our psychological and physical well being therefore decreasing the risk of depression and physical ailments. Sure, human contact and hugs have their own healing power but research shows that having social ties and being social makes you happier, virtual or in-person.
Serve those in need.
There is a ton of research that associates acts of kindness with increased happiness. So much research that I would consider it a fact. And haven’t you experienced that before? I personally enjoy the act of giving gifts over receiving them. There are a lot of people that could use the help, encouragement and/or support right now. Opportunities to give are everywhere and they don’t have to require money or material posessions. We are participating in the bear movement. You put a bear in your front window so that children in the neighborhood can go on a bear hunt, “gonna catch a big one”. Something as simple as this has brought a lot of joy to me and my toddler. If you have the means to support any of the local small businesses, they could really use the help. Especially those of services that aren’t deemed “essential” by paying them even when you aren’t receiving anything for it or ordering take out from your favorite restaurant, or just writing a review for them on yelp. Buying a burrito has always brought me joy but these days it brings a whole new level of satisfaction and happiness.
Laugh, smile and be grateful.
I didn’t need to research whether laughter makes us happier because everyone knows that’s true but did you know even a fake smile and forced laughter releases the happy chemicals? That was news to me. I started smiling when I felt the most amount of stress, anger grief or panic and subjectively, my mood totally improves! So yes, I will be that person smiling to herself for no reason but really for all the reasons. Also thinking about all the things you should smile about brings happiness. Gratitude practices or journals have been shown to improve health and well-bring. It’s impossible to be sad or angry when you are grateful.
Sleep 7-9 hours a night.
Nothing works right if you don’t sleep. Thats a fact. But what is considered enough? Research says that anything less than 6 to 7 hours a night will have negative physiological consequences but even 7 hours a night is worse than 8 or 9 with regards to your system’s well being. The less sleep you have, the higher the chance of getting sick. The quality of sleep also matters. It’s important to have a “winding down” routine that starts at least an hour before getting into bed and eliminating blue light (from screens) is absolutely essential to calm down the nervous system in preparation for sleep.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Aside from pretty extensive google searching, webinar listening and article reading, the following people are really the ones that know what they are talking about:
Laurie Santos (Professor of Coursera Course: The Science of Well-Being through Yale University)
Chris Kresser (A Leader in Functional Medicine)
Ashok Gupta (Developed the Gupta Program for re-programming the brain)
More Information, Guidance & Coaching
If you want more:
“Functional Medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.”
In non-scientific terms, functional medicine is the practice of figuring out the cause of disease and treating it rather than managing symptoms through medications aka bandaids that often cause further harm.
How I see it is this: every disease or condition is simply a name given to a cluster of signs and symptoms. In the traditional western medical model, treatment of such diseases and conditions involve medications and/or surgeries that only address the symptoms rather than getting to any underlying cause and in the process, often lead to additional symptoms aka side effects. Let’s pick cancer as an example; the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in the body. Treatment can be monitoring, chemo, radiation or a combo of it all. But what does that actually treat? It attempts to kill the group of abnormal cells but does it actually address why those cells are uncontrollably dividing in the first place? No it doesn’t. And what does it do in the process? It kills a ton of good stuff in the body that may ultimately be the reason someone dies from cancer rather than the cancer itself. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for traditional western medicine. Someone with aggressive cancer needs to be treated. But what if we didn’t stop with the chemo? What if we went further to figure out why the cells divided in the first place and treat that? My hypothesis would be that the cancer would never come back.
“The precise manifestation of each cause depends on the individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle, and only treatments that address the right cause will have lasting benefit beyond symptom suppression.”
Functional medicine asks the question “why?” and with that answer, actually treats the cause of disease. In this light, you can look at every diagnosis as the same. It is simply a sign of the system functioning at a suboptimal level. Sometimes a diagnosis can be the result of more than one cause or sometimes a cause can be the reason for multiple diagnoses. For example, depression can be caused by vitamin insufficiencies, decreased thyroid function or over-growth of bad bacteria in the gut. On the flip side, an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut can be the cause of depression, arthritis, cancer, heart disease and more.
In some respects, this simplifies the entire study of disease states. There is almost no need for an emphasis on the diagnosis of a condition. Instead the microscope needs to be on the root cause of systemic breakdown. Let’s go back to the cancer example. If the genetic marker for cancer is present, it explains why an individual ended up with cancer versus having heart disease, diabetes or depression BUT that’s still not the actual cause. The true cause could be an ineffective immune system due to chronic systemic inflammation from a leaky gut caused by poor diet, a history of viral infections and excessive stress hormone release that then enabled that genetic mutation for cancer to be expressed. This might sound daunting because most everyone is stressed, has been treated with antibiotics for an infection and doesn’t have the best diet BUT it can also be empowering. Could we actually stop the expression of the cancer gene by optimizing the environment it lives in?I believe the answer is yes, we can. And that is pretty freaking cool. Welcome to functional medicine.
“Functional Medicine is true healthcare. Conventional medicine is really disease management: its doctors focus on controlling illness once it has already occurred, usually by suppressing symptoms with prescription drugs.”
– Chris Kresser
There is one thing I have left out up to this point and it happens to be the single most important factor when it comes to my experience of pain; perceived threat. At the time of the accident, my entire being was under a large amount of stress and to the nervous system, stress equals threat.
I was in a high stress residency, a stagnant romantic relationship and a job that brought me no joy. I was putting my head down and getting through it but my body was likely experiencing the equivalent of running away from tigers with a headwind. Then the accident happened. It came out of no where. There was no time to react, no time to prepare and barely time to comprehend what had happened. When something so unlikely happens, you start living life on the edge, afraid the odds will be against you again any second of any day.
Then there were the doctors. They made sure I remained fearful for the rest of my life. There was the doctor that told me I would never be able to lift my eyebrow again and would need botox to even out the wrinkles on my forehead; the doctor that said I would never be able to smell or taste food ever again; and the one who told me to never ride a bike because I would immediately die if I suffered another head injury. Even my mom got into the mix. She told me I should have a cesarean birth for my theoretical baby because the pushing involved with natural labor would burst the “weak” blood vessels in my brain leaving my theoretical husband a single parent. Looking back on it, its painstakingly obvious I would be the 1 in 4 that would have chronic pain. RESEARCH has listed psycho-social yellow flags that predict who the 1 in 4 will be but the common theme is simple: threat perception. If you perceive threat, your nervous system will remain on high alert and you will have a heightened and prolonged experience of pain.
What I didn’t know then but I know now is this: once your injuries have healed, the first and only way to treat persistent pain is to eliminate the perception of threat. For five years I did physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, functional medicine, rolfing, cortisone shots, herbal and dietary changes. Sure, I got better in some respects. I returned to work and returned to some physical exercise but I was still in pain. I was functioning but I was functioning with pain. In some way, these treatments fed my perception of a threat. All of the tests, examinations and diagnoses made me think my pain was a sign something was still very wrong. The fact that even I couldn’t change my pain had to mean it was serious and beyond repair. I even went to a neurosurgeon. Yes, you read that right. I, Jenny Putt the physical therapist, went to a neurosurgeon. Thats how threatened I felt.
Then there was a shift. The first significant improvement in my pain came after I attended a lecture on neuroscience at a physical therapy conference. Remember how I have been saying that simply reading these blog posts and increasing your knowledge of how pain works decreases your pain? I’m a real life example of this but just incase you don’t want to take my word, RESEARCH shows it too. Why? How? Well once you know that your pain does not mean something is seriously wrong, once you learn that your physical injuries are healed and once you understand that it’s just your nervous system that is still on alert, the threat decreases. With a decrease in perceived threat, the nervous system starts to calm down and poof! your pain disappears.
Aside from pain neuroscience education, we have many other tools that have been shown to decrease the perception of threat, decrease the sensitivity of our nervous system and decrease pain. RESEARCH backs up the use of aerobic exercise, graded activity exposure, manual therapies, meditation, relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, sleep, social interactions and humor as strategies to eliminate pain. This looks a lot different than our typical model of tests, medication and surgeries but thank goodness! Because the old model isn’t working all that great. The current narcotic epidemic is proof of it! Here are a few pointers from research so you can bulk up your tool box:
AEROBIC EXERCISE has been shown to improve sleep, improve motor function, improve memory, improve cortisol changes, aide the immune system, decrease chronic inflammation, decrease anxiety, decrease depression, improve mood and decrease nerve sensitivity. Aerobic activity is defined as working out at an intensity of 60-70% your age-predicted max heart rate (220 minus your age) but that can be intimidating when you have pain. The point is to get moving and the strategy of “kissing the pain” is best when it comes to returning to activity. Gradually increasing the distance and intensity while nudging the pain has been shown to have great results. The motto here is “hurt does not equal harm”. Start with 3-5 minutes at 50% of your max heart rate. Add 1-2 minutes every other day until you have worked up to 30 minutes. Then slowly start increasing the intensity to the goal of 60-70% your max heart rate.
GRADED ACTIVITY EXPOSURE has been shown to be just as effective as aerobic exercise in decreasing pain intensity and disability. So if you’re not much of an exerciser, pick an activity you want to return to and apply the same principle of starting slow, kissing the pain and gradually increasing amount and intensity.
SLEEP has so many benefits to our whole being and we just don’t get enough of it! Here are some strategies to help develop a more healthy sleep pattern: set a time to go to bed (before 11pm), stop using all screens (computer, TV, phone, iPad etc) at least an hour before bedtime, reduce fluid intake (especially alcohol and coffee) in the evening, darken and cool your bedroom, remove kids and pets from your bed, relax, meditate or read a book before bed, stay in bed even if you can’t fall asleep right away, eliminate naps or restrict naps to <20 min during the day and exercise during the day so you are more tired come night.
RELAXATION whether it be through meditation, diaphragmatic breathing or a trip to the spa, is key to calming the nervous system. The goal is to live more in the parasympathetic state (rest and digest) than the sympathetic state (fight or flight). This will look different for each individual. I am not a person that finds tranquility in meditation or yoga but being with family and friends or working on a puzzle puts me in a state of ease. Find whatever does this for you and do more of it.
OTHER THERAPIES including mobilization, manipulation, soft tissue massage and trigger point dry needling have been shown to be the most effective in decreasing chronic pain when used in combination with pain neuroscience education. So all of the time and money I spent seeing physical therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists would have been more effective if education regarding my pain had been included.
The happy ending to this story and this series of blog posts is that most likely, some of your pain is coming from your brain and you can 100% change that. I still have pain when I’m stressed, sleep deprived, over committed, eating poorly and not moving. BUT that’s my fault. I can chose to not do these things. I can chose to be pain free. Thats some powerful sh*t.
Kendall NAS, Linton SJ, Main CJ. Guide to assessing psychosocial yellow flags in acute low back pain: risk factors for long term disability and work loss. Wellington: Accident Rehabilitation & Compensation Insurance Corporation of New Zealand and the National Health Committee; 1997. Full text.
Louw A, Diener I, Butler DS, Puentedura EJ. The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety, and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Dec 2011;92(12):2041-2056. Full text.
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George S, Wittmer V, Fillingim R, Robinson M. Comparison of Graded Exercise and Graded Exposure Clinical Outcomes for Patients With Chronic Low Back Pain Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. 2010; 40(11):694-704. Full text.
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Louw A, Zimney K, Puentedura EJ, Diener I. The efficacy of pain neuroscience education on musculoskeletal pain: A systematic review of the literature. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. Jul 2016;32(5):332-355. Full text.
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It was June 12, 2011. I was out on an evening walk when a very fast car decided to join my friend and I on the sidewalk. I will spare both you and myself the details of the accident and instead, focus on my nervous system and it’s interpretation of pain over the years…yes, years.
At the time of the accident there was significant tissue damage. Significant enough to warrant a large amount of pain however, I felt nothing. My brain had decided that the threat of my injuries did not outweigh the threat of the car that was still present and trying to reverse to flee the scene. So I quickly got up and ran out of harm’s way kind of like a super human.
Once out of harm’s way, my super human powers disappeared and I started to experience pain. Bummer. Simplified for teaching purposes, there are three nerves that pass a message from the injured tissue to the brain for interpretation. Peripheral nerves go from the body to spinal cord, in the spinal cord there is a small interneuron that acts as a gateway to the third nerve which is ironically called a second order neuron because medical terminology likes to be confusing. This second order neuron travels up the spinal cord to the brain where multiple areas go into the processing of the signal to determine what meaning the message has.
Upon impact, my injured tissues started sending signals through peripheral nerves to my spinal cord. At first, they were either stopped by the interneuron or my brain decided they weren’t a threat because a bigger threat (the car) was present. Once I was removed from danger, the messages were allowed to pass through and my brain interpreted them as the next most immediate threat so I started to perceived pain. At first, the pain experienced directly correlated to the extent of my injuries but over time, my pain became disproportionate to the tissue damage.
At first, my body’s top priority was to heal and in order to heal, the body must rest. Even as tissues started to repair, my nerves remained extra sensitive and my brain continued to interpret everything as a threat (pain) so I would minimize my movement and allow for further healing. Makes sense right? Now typically this protective pain will go away once the tissues have healed because it is no longer needed but 1 in 4 people will experience persistent pain long after the injury has resolved. I am one of those lucky people. Yay me! At first I thought this was just due to chance but knowing what I now know about pain, I believe this has nothing to do with chance and everything to do with the adaptations of my nervous system.
Let’s start with the peripheral nerves: the ones going from the body to the spinal cord. Nerves have a level of charge that must be met in order to send a message. If the threshold is met, the nerve will fire. Nerves reach their firing charge by allowing ions from the outside to the inside through ion channels. There are many types of ion channels that open or close in response to different stimuli. Some respond to chemicals (stress, immune, inflammatory) while others respond to mechanical stimuli like tension and pressure. Temperature also opens and closes ion channels. The more ion channels that are open, the more likely the nerve is to fire. With my original injury, the mechanical impact and the inflammatory response opened more than enough ion channels for nerve firing. Ion channels are only present where there isn’t myelin (a sheath that improves the speed of signaling). Over time, inflammatory chemicals can demyelinate nerves allowing an increase in ion channels and a perpetually more sensitive nerve long after the inflammation is gone. So fast forward a few months and even a few years, my nerves still have increased ion channels and still reach their firing threshold more easily. I experience pain when I’m sick, when I’m stressed and even when I’m cold all because there are more ion channels.
Moving on to the spinal cord where the peripheral nerves meet interneurons before going to the brain for interpretation. If this interneuron is bombarded by messages, it will die off. This eliminates the gate keeper of messages and allows all of them to get to the brain easier. I’m pretty sure my interneurons were obliterated. My injuries took a really long time to heal on a tissue level which meant a lot of messages were sent for a long time. The brain can also ease the passing of messages from the body through the spinal cord if it believes there is a threat. The brain becomes more interested in the danger signals and will therefore increase nerve sensitivity by keeping ion channels open longer so it can receive more information more often. For good reason, my brain perceived threat for a long time so it likely made it as easy as possible for messages to pass through.
Another thing to note is that the nervous system is messy in its organization and adaptations. These changes occurred at the nerves corresponding to the areas that were injured but there is crossover in representation of an area as the nerves enter the spinal cord and within the brain. As a consequence, the area of my perceived pain spread over time. Not because of further tissue damage but because the adaptations of my nervous system and the interpretation of where the signals were coming from are not precise.
Just like the rest of the nervous system, the brain is also adaptable. When an area of the body is used more or generates a disproportionate amount of signals, the representation of that area in the brain will grow and borders of it will become less defined. This is another reason why pain can go from being isolated to the injured tissues, to being more diffuse.
All of the magic really happens in the brain. Up to this point, all messages are just an electrical signal traveling down a nerve. It’s the brain that gives meaning to this electrical charge. It’s the brain that decides whether the message is pain, a different sensation or not worthy of any feeling at all. Many areas of the brain participate in this decision making process. The areas for sensation, emotions, memory, cognition, movement planning and stress response have all been shown to be activated during the experience of pain. This complex interaction varies for each individual and each pain experience. The specific pattern of activation is called a neurotag. Other experiences and memories also have their own neurotag. The more often a neurotag is used, the more it becomes reinforced and the easier it will be accessed. This is where the phrase “its like riding a bike” comes from. The more we practice something, the easier it is to do automatically and this can occur with a movement, a memory or the experience of pain. Specific movements and activities had become so strongly associated with the experience of pain within my neurotag that even after my body healed, these movements still generated pain.
So with all of these adaptations, am I destined to be in pain for the rest of my life because I am literally wired to experience more pain? For years, the answer was yes but once I started learning about pain neuroscience, the answer became heck no. If the nervous system can adapt in one direction, it is also capable of reverse adaptations and the key to this switch is actually quite simple. It all lies in the perception of threat.
Stay tuned for the final post of this series: How to Decrease Pain by Decreasing the Perception of Threat.
Louw A. Why Do I Hurt? A Neuroscience Approach to Pain. Minneapolis: OPTP; 2013. Textbook.
Moseley, G.L., A pain neuromatrix approach to patients with chronic pain. Man Ther, 2003. 8(3): p. 130-40. Full text.
Melzack, R., Pain and the neuromatrix in the brain Journal of Dental Education, 2001. 65: p. 1378-1382. Full text.
Woolf CJ. Central sensitization: uncovering the relation between pain and plasticity. Anesthesiology. Apr 2007;106(4):864-867. Full text.
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Gifford LS. Pain, the tissues and the nervous system. Physiotherapy. 1998;84:27-33. Full text.
Woolf CJ, Salter MW. Neuronal plasticity: increasing End the gain in pain. Science. Jun 9, 2000;288(5472):1765-1769. Full text.
Simply put, the nervous system is an alarm system. But it’s not entirely that clear cut. Let’s say you were crossing the street and sprained your ankle. Ordinarily this would hurt but let’s also say a large bus is coming toward you. Would your ankle still hurt? The answer is of course not! In this situation, it would not be smart for the brain to produce pain because it would hinder your ability to get out of the way of the bus. The brain would decide that the bus was a bigger threat than the ankle sprain and would therefore not send the signal of pain. This is how people with a broken leg can escape a burning car. This is also why some people don’t feel their pain until after they have stopped working, gardening, playing etc.
The brain evaluates all threats, not just tissue damage. Nerves have receptors for temperature, stress, blood flow, movement, pressure and immune responses. A change in any of these can be interpreted as a threat and thus cause pain in the body. This is why people experience more pain in colder temperatures, with stagnant postures, during times of high stress and when you are fighting off the common cold.
Have you wondered why you are the one that ended up with chronic pain while your friend Sally who was in the same car accident with the same injuries walked away pain free? Every brain is different and processes pain differently. It has been shown that multiple areas of the brain are involved in a pain experience. These areas include those responsible for sensation, movement, focus, concentration, fear, memory, motivation and stress. Each of these areas communicate with each other to discuss and determine the appropriate action. Its like a board meeting takes place to discuss the danger messages. If it is decided that there is a threat and an action is required, pain will be produced to protect you. The members of the board and the decision made will be different for each individual.
Aside from the brain, people experience injury in very different life environments. Someone who is in a car crash during a happy time in life will have a lesser pain experience than someone going through a divorce and layoff. Stressful life environments produce stress chemicals throughout the body that will cause the nervous system to wake up quickly, be extra-sensitive and take a long time to calm down. This is why people who get injured at work (especially at stressful jobs) have slower recoveries than someone injured at a soccer game or a destruction derby driver who crashes cars for fun.
My point here is that it is complicated. Pain is not as simple as you have an injury, it causes pain, the injury heals, the pain goes away. Confused yet? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! This very fact makes my job a million times more difficult! But the great news is this: research has proven that simply knowing pain is complicated, can and likely will reduce your pain if you are experiencing pain for reasons other than damaged tissues. Thank goodness!
Louw A, Puentedura E. Therapeutic Neuroscience Education: Teaching patients about pain. Minneapolis, MN: OPTP; 2013. Textbook.
Moseley, G.L., A pain neuromatrix approach to patients with chronic pain. Man Ther, 2003. 8(3): p. 130-40. Web. FULL TEXT
Gifford LS. Pain, the tissues and the nervous system. Physiotherapy. 1998;84:27-33. Web. FULL TEXT
Louw A, Zimney K, O’Hotto C, Hilton S. The clinical application of teaching people about pain. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. Jul 2016;32(5):385-395. Web. FULL TEXT
There are 400 individual nerves (about 45 miles worth) in the human body that act as an alarm system. At all times there is a little bit of electricity traveling through each of them. Various factors including stress, movement and temperature can make this level of electricity go up or down.
Each nerve has a threshold. When a nerve gets excited enough to reach this threshold, a message will be sent to the brain for analysis and possible action. So let’s say you lift something way too heavy with horrible form. The alarm system will go off and you will react by dropping the box…maybe even hire someone else to do the moving. Once the message has been sent and you have responded, the nervous system should return to its normal resting state. However, in 1 out of 4 people, the alarm system gets activated and then rests just below the threshold rather than returning to its original resting state. This is an extra sensitive nerve.
Having extra sensitive nerves is quite common but not normal. It can significantly impede activity and function. When the nervous system is at its normal resting level, there is a lot of room for activity before reaching the threshold. For example, you can sit in a car for hours before your nerves send the signal to stop, get out of the car and stretch. Then they return to normal and you can drive for a few more hours before another signal would be sent.
After hurting your back lifting, the nerves have become extra sensitive so now there is very little room for activity before the alarm system goes off. You find that you can only sit for 5 minutes before you need to get up. And this occurs even after the tissues in your back have healed from your original injury all because the nervous system hasn’t returned to its normal resting level.
If you look at your own story it will become clear. Perhaps all diagnostic tests have come back negative but you’re still in pain. Maybe doctors keep telling you everything looks fine but you still can’t do nearly the amount of activities you used to do without consequences. Parts of your body not originally involved may all of a sudden start hurting as well. Small activities, movements and even light touch have become painful. These are all signs that your nervous system is on high alert. If you have been prescribed anti-depressants or nerve inhibitors, your physician agrees!
Two people with the same injury can end up in entirely different situations. One may be fine a week later while the other suffers from chronic pain for the rest of their life. How come? The sensitivity of your nervous system depends on many factors going on in your life. These include but are not limited to failed treatments, family issues, levels of fear, concerns about your job and even being given different explanations of your pain. Someone who has job satisfaction, healthy relationships, good sleep, a balanced diet and a clear treatment plan given by passionate health care providers will have a better chance of being pain free when compared to an individual who is sleep deprived, stressed, jacked up on sugar and worried about their prognosis.
The short answer: A LOT! The coolest part is that just by understanding the concept of nerve sensitivity, you are already on your way to decreasing it. Research shows that if people understand more about their pain, the alarm system immediately starts turning down its sensitivity. This makes complete sense don’t you think? The alarm system is kept on high alert for good reason when there are more questions and concerns than answers and reassurances. By understanding that your pain is likely due to sensitive nerves rather than damaged tissues, fear is reduced and in turn, nerves are calmed. Research also shows that oxygen and blood flow, through aerobic activity, can help calm the nervous system. This includes a brisk walk, swim, bike ride or pretty much anything that gets you breathing a little hard and sweating a little bit. So nothing too crazy! But the easiest strategy of them all is something we do all day long: breathing. Diaphragmatic excursion has been shown to calm the whole nervous system down. The only trick is learning how to breath the right way. Don’t know how to breath right? No worries, that’s what I’m here for. Stay tuned.
Adriaan Louw, Ina Diener, David S. Butler, and Emilio J. Puentedura. “The Effect of Neuroscience Education on Pain, Disability, Anxiety, and Stress in Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain.” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 92.12 (2011): 2041-056. Web. FULL TEXT
Kirsten R. Ambrose, and Yvonne M. Golightly. “Physical Exercise as Non-pharmacological Treatment of Chronic Pain: Why and When.” Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology 29.1 (2015): 120-30. Web. FULL TEXT
Daniela Roditi and Michael E Robinson. “The Role of Psychological Interventions in the Management of Patients with Chronic Pain.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management 4 (2011): 41–49. Web. FULL TEXT
Pain neuroscience education can be a sensitive topic. The big underlying message of it all is that our brains determine whether or not we feel pain. This statement pretty much takes everything we thought we knew and throws it out the window. For years I have treated musculoskeletal tissues under the notion that they were responsible for causing pain but maybe this isn’t always true. Pain neuroscience theorizes that the experience of pain is not caused by the injured tissue but rather by how our brain interprets messages sent from the nervous system. Mind. Blown. And yes, pun intended.
Where this topic can become a little offensive is how this new information is perceived. I am by no means saying that people make up their pain and I don’t think pain is all in people’s heads. Pain is real, no matter where it is coming from. Pain neuroscience is not discrediting people’s experience of pain BUT it does provide an explanation for why pain sometimes doesn’t go away even after the original cause has been resolved.
I want to start with a personal story so that no one feels alone with the idea that your brain might be playing more of a role in your pain than your muscles or bones. It will also explain why I have become so interested in the topic.
I have chronic pain.
It’s hard for me to admit to that. Its like going to a marriage counselor and finding out they have been divorced 10 times. But I think its time for me to look at my pain in a different light. It allows me to relate to all of my patients and for that, I believe I am a better physical therapist. So lets just agree that no one will ask me about my pain during their treatment time. Agreed? Cool.
For many years I was at a plateau and I had tried EVERYTHING. Or so I thought. On many occasions I viewed myself as a failure in that I couldn’t fix my own pain. But then I went to a lecture on neuroscience and my entire perspective changed. Could my brain be the reason that I couldn’t change my pain? I started being more aware of my flare ups as they related to my emotional state. It soon became obvious that fatigue and stress definitely made my pain worse. My entire approach to my pain needed to change. Things like sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation and even trauma counseling became my focus and my home exercise program. Today, I am by no means pain free but each time I have a flare up, I can always come up with an explanation for why I am in pain. This alone helps the flare up be shorter in duration and less intense (I will support this with research in a later post).
I am not sure how many parts there will be to this series, nor do I know how long it will take me to completely cover the topic, but here is a little preview of whats to come: how does the brain contribute to pain, how pain neuroscience education can actually decrease pain, other ways of managing pain when the brain is contributing, and lots of research articles to support all of it. If you have any questions along the way, feel free to contact me here.
I think it’s probably best to start with “what the heck is the pelvic floor?” Just like the rotator cuff, the pelvic floor is a group of muscles that work together for a common purpose. The pelvic floor spans the bottoms of the pelvis from the pubic bone to the tail bone like a hammock. There are three layers to the pelvic floor. The first and second layer (most superficial layers) contain the sphincter muscles that are responsible for urinary and bowel continence. The third (most deep) layer acts as support for the pelvic organs. As a whole, the pelvic floor works in conjunction with the diaphragm and abdominal muscles to stabilize the trunk. Sounds like a pretty important part of the body right? It is!
So what does pelvic floor dysfunction look like? Some people might not know they have pelvic floor dysfunction while others may have symptoms coming directly from their pelvic floor making it more obvious. Dysfunction of the pelvic floor can cause or contribute to low back pain, hip pain and sacroiliac pain. Symptoms related directly to the pelvic floor can include vulvar, testicular or scrotal pain; tailbone, pubic bone or sacroiliac pain; pain generated by scar tissue related to episiotomies, tearing during vaginal birth, cesarian surgery, or any other surgery involving sex organs; prolapse or the feeling of vaginal heaviness; urinary leakage or retention, pain with urination, excessive urination frequency or urge; fecal incontinence, pain with bowel movements, inability to hold farts in or hemorrhoids; pain with penetration, inability to orgasm and erectile dysfunction. What a long list! And I’m sure I have missed a few.
Some common diagnoses treated by pelvic physical therapists are: abdominal pain, anal spasm, bladder pain, coccygodynia, constipation, cystocele, diarrhea, diastasis recti, dysmenorrhea, dyspareunia, enterocele, fecal incontinence, fecal urgency, feeling of incomplete defecation or urination, flatulence, frequency of micturition (urination), hesitancy of micturition, interstitial cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, low back pain, mixed incontinence (urge and stress), nocturia, nocturnal enuresis, overactive bladder, overflow incontinence, pain in hip, pelvic and perineal pain, poor/weak stream, piriformis syndrome, post-void dribbling, prostatitis, prostatodynia, pudendal neuralgia, radiculopathy, rectocele, sacrococcygeal disorders, sacroiliac disorders, scar conditions and fibrosis of skin, sciatica, splitting of stream, straining to void, stress fracture of pelvis, stress incontinence, symphysis pubis dysfunction, urethritis, urethrocele, urge incontinence, uterovaginal prolapse, vaginismus, vulvar vestibulitis, and vulvodynia.
Many people will look at this list and ask, can these issues really be fixed? Or worst, most people won’t feel comfortable asking. The answer is ABSOLUTELY YES! For most of these symptoms and diagnoses, the first step is seeing a pelvic physical therapist to see what conservative treatment can do to help improve your pain and/or function. Just like any other muscle in the body, the pelvic floor can be strengthened and stretched which can dramatically improve the quality of life of an individual with pelvic floor dysfunction. For some of these diagnoses it will be important to have a health care team to fully treat the problem. This might include an OBGYN, urologist, gastroenterologist, acupuncturist, psychologist, and/or general medicine doctor to ensure the dysfunction is treated from a lifestyle, anatomical, physiological and psychological perspective. No matter what the game changing intervention might end up being, its important to know there is something you can do about it!
Still weary? I understand that for most, talking about poop, pee and sex is awkward and uncomfortable but for a pelvic physical therapist, its like talking about the weather or what’s for dinner. Afraid of farting during your evaluation? It’s totally normal to feel that way but it’s also just as normal to fart a little. I’m serious! I recognize coming to pelvic physical therapy is inherently intimidating for many so to help ease any hesitations, here is what to expect at your first appointment: it starts with lots of talking and yes, clothes are still on at this point. In fact, clothes never need to come off if you don’t feel comfortable with it! There are plenty of external techniques to both diagnose and treat effectively. Discussion includes past medical history, current complaints and your individual goals. Then we move on to testing through functional movements, joint range of motion and muscle strength assessments. Since the pelvic floor is very connected to the low back, hip and sacroiliac joint, I start with an orthopedic screen of each of these first. I also look at management of pressure through breath and activation of the “core” because the pelvic floor is integrated with the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. If you feel comfortable, the internal evaluation of the pelvic floor is next. For this, you undress from the waist down but will have a sheet draped over you. I describe exactly what I am going to do before doing it and at any point, you can say “I’m done with this” or say “no thanks” to any of the techniques described. Internal assessment is best for measuring the strength of the pelvic floor, giving cues to increase coordination of the pelvic floor, assessing position of the coccyx, releasing trigger points within muscles of the pelvic floor and mobilizing scar tissue. But as I said before, external techniques are always an option if you just don’t want the internal stuff. As with every physical therapy evaluation, a musculoskeletal diagnosis is given, a plan of care is discussed and you will be given a home exercise program to get started on reaching your goals. At the end of your visit, I’m sure you will feel silly for being so nervous about going to one! It’s 100% worth your time, energy and a brief moment of feeling uncomfortable to improve your quality of life.