By Becca Ironside, PT
I have been working as a pelvic floor physical therapist for a few years now. As with many people with hold this job title, we were often met with confused looks, raised eyebrows and a generalized misunderstanding as to what physical therapy of the pelvic floor could possibly entail. This is entirely understandable, as I had been a physical therapist for sixteen years before taking the dive into getting my pelvic floor specialty.
Why did I change paths and redirect my craft towards the pelvis? In part, because I had become a little bored with the other facets of physical therapy I had worked within and wanted a new challenge. But the larger reason why I felt compelled to undergo this very specific training for the pelvic floor is because I suffered from pelvic pain. It was unpredictable pain, which manifested itself in odd and various ways. I went to so many different physicians, yet none of these specialists I went to for treatment could help me with my symptoms.
Fast forward, five years later: I have a very gratifying job treating the pelvic floor muscles of both women and men. The demand for this work is enormous, as there are not enough pelvic floor therapists to treat the vast number of people who have discovered its importance. Women come to our clinic and the ability to help others who have the nebulous and seemingly inexplicable symptoms that I once did is a splendid feeling. Secondly, I no longer experience pelvic pain. This is because I can utilize the techniques and knowledge that I use with my patients on myself; I also have a great bunch of coworkers who can treat me when I cannot fix the problem and need another mind or another set of eyes and hands to brainstorm and palpate the causation of it. Lastly, there is a show featured on HBO which is all about a woman with pelvic floor dysfunction. Finally, the world is being educated on a grand scale about the importance of pelvic health! The show is entitled Camping.
In watching the show Camping, we learn that Kathryn has undergone a hysterectomy. The loss of her uterus and ovaries has led to other losses. For instance, Kathryn and her husband have not had sex in two years. We are led to the conclusion, by her husband’s discussion with his fishing buddies, and Kathryn’s own overt disgust and refusal of sex, that it is chronic pelvic pain that seems to be driving the boat in their marriage.
Let’s go back to what pelvic floor dysfunction really means. Some women, like Kathryn, have had pelvic surgeries which can lead to scar tissue formation. Other women have constant burning and discomfort with urination, all due to muscular imbalances. What will that lead to? Sex can often become painful and many women brace themselves before each sexual encounter, in fear of the discomfort that will ensue.
The show Camping does a fair job in unveiling how a relationship can be eroded by pelvic pain and the lack of intimacy that often accompanies it. This is a finding often seen in the pelvic pain population. Pain alters how the brain processes information. It effects our ability to be active listeners, to take care of others, either in the bedroom or out of it. But when the pain is so directed in the perineum, sex is often one of the first leisure activities to take a backseat in the relationship. That makes sense, right?
There are other manifestations to having this condition. Many people with chronic pain find themselves more withdrawn than they might have been without it and more apt to find solitude. Their threshold for chaos can often run thin. And because women are often called upon in society to act “motherly” and to be “nurturers”, many of them living with chronic pain will simply put their chins up and bear it. Even though depression and anxiety might be creeping up their backs like a snake. Lots of them soldier on, push down the pain and are reluctant to make their diagnosis public.
Obviously, this does not represent all women with chronic pelvic pain. When we are introduced to Kathryn, the main character in Camping, we get quite a different profile of how this pain can affect people. The actress Jennifer Garner plays the role of Kathryn, and Ms.Garner uses her elan in this performance to show us a woman who is highly obsessive, erratic in thought and speech and has great difficulty maintaining relationships with others. Kathryn is described as “bitter” and “angry” behind her back and she hits her husband when he attempts to initiate sex.
This characterization of a woman with pelvic pain may be what the writer of the series felt if she had similar pain. Or the character may be based on a Type A Helicopter Mom to make the series more amusing, as this series is a sitcom. But the reality of this portrayal of Kathryn as a woman suffering from pelvic floor dysfunction is that she does not represent the typical sufferer. Because this is the first exposure that the general public has had in mainstream television to the pelvic floor, it may render women less willing to acknowledge or seek help for their diagnosis, as they may not want to align themselves with the behaviors of Kathryn.
In fact, the portrayal of women in this light can seem reminiscent of the 1950’s. The term “hysterical” was used in the past as an actual psychiatric diagnosis used to label women for being overly dramatic and prone to bouts of insane behavior. The medical operation known as a hysterectomy was named because it was believed that if a physician removed a woman’s female parts, he would eradicate her insanity.
I am reluctant to bring these facts from the past for women into the cold light of today. This is what the world of pelvic floor physical therapy is trying to reverse – the notion that women with feminine troubles are irrational and unable to be around without great unpleasantness. While it is encouraging that a cable network has named pelvic floor dysfunction, it would be far more helpful in the future if women were represented as emboldened by the power to take back their own pelvic health. Because that is precisely the image of the women who come to us: bold, unashamed and ready to use available resources to uproot outmoded theories of how they should feel and who they should be.
So, where do we go from here?