Dr. Greenleaf: You know, this is very interesting and is becoming a very big topic of discussion, not just the vaginal microbiome but microbiomes in general. So the terminology “microbiome”: a biome is basically a little environment. So it’s all the organisms that live in and around an area. So we think of the Amazon rainforest; that’s its own biome. But on a microscopic level, we have the microbiome.
Ironside: What is an example of a microbiome in humans?
Dr. Greenleaf: So there’s different areas of our body such as our mouth, our intestines, the vagina; each one of those areas has its own bacteria, yeasts, and organisms that live in balance. The vaginal microbiome is so important for women and it can get out of whack. The first thing you may notice is that you may develop an itch or a burn or an odor. And for people who study and treat the microbiome we know that’s a sign the microbiome is out of balance. And so there are healthy bacteria that live in the vagina that basically, they’re called lactobacillus, and the lactobacillus is what keeps our vagina in balance. And so things like stress or diets high in sugars or being on antibiotics or changes in hormones from pregnancy or menopause, these things can affect the healthy lactobacillus’ ability to fight off “the bad guys”.
Ironside: What can a person do when the “bad guys" get the best of the healthy lactobacillus?
Dr. Greenleaf: when the lactobacillus is no longer there because it’s been affected that’s when we’re at much higher risk for vaginal itching, burning, odor, which may be termed a “vaginitis,” an inflammation of the vagina, and that can happen from an overgrowth of bacteria or an overgrowth of yeast. So it’s really that we want our biomes to be in balance. So it’s really this whole fascinating area of study now and even with some of the laboratory tests that are coming out we’re discovering more and more about what is a healthy microbiome. They’re discovering bacteria that lives in the vagina that nobody knew existed because of some of these advances in the testing that is out there.
Ironside: That’s awesome. Can you explain how you test this vaginal microbiome?
Dr. Greenleaf: Sure! So it’s still interesting because the standard of care for testing for vaginitis is really still stuck in the 1950s. Unfortunately the standard of care for when you go to the doctor for itching and burning is they will test your vaginal pH. That’s actually a nice, easy way for people to know and can actually do it yourself at home. There’s a lot of different type of pH paper that you can find on Amazon. So the normal range of pH for the vagina should be between 3.5 and 4.5, which is very acidic.
Ironside: Is it enough to have a vagina that is acidic to maintain good vaginal health?
Dr. Greenleaf: The pH level alone is not all that you need to know. Like I said, this was considered standardized testing and what we’re taught in medical school, and a lot of doctors are still doing as a standard of care. It’s still kind of antiquated and other than pH, there’s ways for us to look under the microscope and see inflammatory cells or there’s something called a “whiff test” where we apply a bit of a base to a slide. If there’s an odor associated with this base with the vaginal secretions, then we know there’s bacterial vaginosis. So really that’s what’s considered standard of care and doesn’t actually test the microbiome. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that laboratories started developing more advanced testing that looks at the DNA presence of what’s in the vagina looking at the vaginal secretions. A lot of time this can be done with just a simple Q-tip like swab that’s sent off to a specialty lab to look at exactly what type of bacteria is there. There’s two (2) kinds of tests.
Ironside: Can you describe these tests?
Dr. Greenleaf: The first one came out initially called a “PCR” test. The PCR test looks at the DNA presence of bacteria and yeast and tests to see if there’s any kind of healthy bacteria. That can be done in a doctor’s office. Now, I have to say, there’s still not a lot of doctors that are doing that because it’s still not considered 100% standard of care. So unfortunately, I hope we’re moving in that direction because I find that in general when it comes to advances in medicine that insurance or the general medical population lags about 10-15 years behind the technology. Nowadays, they’ve gone on to not only look at the DNA presence of the bacteria but there’s another type of test called “Next Generation Testing.” The Next Generation test actually is able to test and identify even more types of bacteria and microbiome that’s there. There are some commercial companies that are developing tests where patients can go directly to their websites and actually order these microbiome tests. The only thing I caution you with some of the Next Generation Testing is it’s really for information purposes only and not used to diagnose or treat because we’re finding out so much more bacteria that exists that we never knew was there so clinically they’re not 100% sure what to do with this knowledge. There are some laboratories out there that are doing major research on discovering what is “normal,” what is “not normal” when it comes to vaginal health, so I think in the next 5-10 years we’ll see a big shift in the ability to test for this and also to help women balance out their microbiome so they don’t ever have to deal with itching, burning and odor ever again.
Ironside: It’s so wonderful, this kind of pioneering work that you’re doing and we just love hearing about this. So the next question that I wanted to ask you is about the use of lasers for vaginal health. Can you delve into that for us please?
Dr. Greenleaf: Sure! And this is also connected with the vaginal microbiome, so we’re gonna take a step back and people might say, “Why do I need to care about my microbiome?” and you know, “why does it really matter?” If you’re treating itching, burning, odor that’s one thing; but there’s actually some bigger problems that can happen when the microbiome is thrown off. Number one, like we were talking about, you’re at much higher risk for recurrent vaginitis but you can actually have recurrent issues with urinary tract infections, and it can actually cause infertility if the microbiome is not off. So this is something where if a patient is struggling with infertility, maybe balancing out the microbiome will help. And now they’re even doing research into sex drive and microbiome. I’ll connect this with lasers in just a minute but – the thought is that there may be this vagina-brain connection. Once you explain it, it kind of makes sense, but scientists are now currently trying to prove this: if the microbiome is off in the vagina, that might not ideally be the best time to reproduce and this feedback signaling to the brain to shut down sex drive; so that’s something that we’re looking at.
Ironside: Interesting. How does this connect with the use of lasers for better vaginal balance?
Dr. Greenleaf: So how to connect it to vaginal lasers, this is where it gets really interesting: when a woman is menstruating and the vaginal tissue is being exposed to hormones like estrogen, the tissue is going to be nice and thick and healthy, that’s gonna help with moisture in the vagina and help with comfort. The other thing is with that healthy tissue, the tissue is going to constantly be growing and the old cells are going to be sloughed off. Those sloughed off cells make up a chemical called glycogen; that’s the food source of the lactobacillus. As long as there's a food source for the lactobacillus, the lactobacillus will be there and will fight off all these other bad guys and keep the microbiome in balance. There are a number of conditions where that tissue in the vagina starts to really thin down, and when it thins, it stops sloughing off, and the food source of the lactobacillus disappears and the lactobacillus starves and dies and now you have all these other conditions. The biggest time that this happens in a woman’s life tends to be in menopause when the estrogen levels get low and the ovaries are stopping to produce as much estrogen and women are complaining of vaginal dryness or pain with intercourse. Especially during this time period we see increased risks of vaginitis and recurrent urinary tract infections. This can also happen in times after childbirth or breastfeeding those hormones are low, or even in women who are on birth control. So even though taking birth control, the body perceives the estrogen levels as being much lower and the vaginal tissue can be affected.
Ironside:What about the use of estrogen creams to address these concerns?
Dr. Greenleaf: Traditionally, the way we were able to treat this in women was using estrogen cream in the vagina. But, not that it’s a bad option – for some women it’s wonderful option and are very happy with it, the downside of using estrogen creams in the vagina is from a comfort level it may be slimy, some people don’t like that slimy sensation or don’t like having to put in creams every night or a couple of times a week. Some people are just nervous using hormones or exposing their bodies to hormones, such as women who have had breast cancer. So there’s a number of reasons – some people just can’t tolerate it. A lot of the prescription options contain something called propylene glycol as a filler that can be very irritating to the vaginal mucosa. So there’s a number of reasons why women would choose not to use estrogen vaginally. So if you’re reading or listening to this and you are choosing it it’s not a bad option, it’s just for a long time it was the only option. So what I think is really fascinating in the world of vaginas is that since about 2016 here in the United States, there’s been more focus on how we can help women with dryness, with pain with intercourse due to dryness, or microbiome problems without using hormones.
Ironside: When did lasers start to come into focus for vaginal health?
Dr. Greenleaf: In Europe prior to 2016 they really started looking at lasers for tissue regeneration. The funny thing about lasers is lasers have been used since probably the 1980’s for tissue regeneration when it comes to cosmetics. They use it for facial rejuvenation, for skin anti-aging, for skin tightening, and then all of a sudden somebody – and I wish it was me, but it wasn’t – somebody decided “if this works so well on the face and other areas cosmetically, why don’t we use it for the vagina?” And starting in Europe and prior to 2016 is being used for vaginal rejuvenation. And lasers are just light energy, and they used the light energy applied to the vaginal tissue and it actually will trigger the body to produce it’s own growth factors and can actually cause the vaginal tissue to re-grow without being exposed to hormones. So, we’ve been able to use that technology in the United States since 2016. It started out with a product called the “Mona Lisa Touch,” which is a laser that I’ve loved to use, but there are a number of different companies that are now employing their own use of lasers so there’s a lot of different laser products that being used for the vagina. I think what happened with laser vaginal rejuvenation it really kicked off this industry of “wait a minute, there’s a lot of things that we use for regenerative purposes cosmetically, let’s now apply this to the vagina.” So lasers were the first option and now we’re starting to see things like red light therapy, which they know is great for the skin, being applied to the vagina; and something called “Carboxytherapy'' where you use a gelled carbon dioxide that they use – once again it was taken from the cosmetic world and they do still put it on people’s face to rejuvenate the skin – but there are now options out there to be applied to the vagina. So I think we’re see in the next couple of years more and more of these products coming out to help women, and more options without having to use hormone creams.
Ironside: That is fantastic, and what I really admire about your practice is how you continue to experiment with these lasers on your own and also with fellow professionals. You spend your weekends, I know this, doing all manner of experimentation with lasers and I’m a huge fan of what you’re doing. So finally I’d like to ask you about something called a “pessary.” I think the average person does not know what this is, and if they do know, they might be a little hesitant to try it. My hope is that you can dispel this anxiety surrounding the use of pessaries.
Dr. Greenleaf: So the unfortunate thing is that 50% of women will experience or develop a prolapse, and then we have to take a step back and go, “what is a prolapse?” So prolapse is when things are drooping and dropping. So you may have heard about people talking about their bladder drop or their uterus drop, rectum drop. Unfortunately not enough people are talking about it because it’s happening in 50% of women. So it happens often because the ligaments in the pelvis have been damaged either childbirth is the most common reason, but heavy lifting or some sort of trauma to the pelvis, or severe constipation, sometimes people with really hard coughing or vomiting can put a lot of pressure on the pelvis and damage the ligaments.
Ironside: What is a person's response when this happens, what reactions have you seen??
Dr. Greenleaf: So what happens especially when the bladder drops, a woman may not know that is happening right away but they may all the sudden have problems emptying their bladder all the way, urinary tract infections, some women will actually feel something bulging out of the vagina. A lot of women's first reaction to it is, “Oh goodness I have a tumor!” and so they come into the office and we can say, “no, it’s not a tumor, it’s just that you’ve lost some of the support.” There’s a whole range of things that can be done for this. I think in general we sometimes overlook the simplest and easiest thing that can be done, which is a pessary. A pessary is a support device that is fitted for your vagina and basically is worn inside the vagina and just wedges in there and can hold up the bladder, the uterus, the rectum.
Ironside: When did pessaries come into fashion?
Dr. Greenleaf: The interesting history about pessaries is that they’ve been in use since ancient Egypt. Women used to use pomegranates, which I don’t advise, but women used to use pomegranates or rocks and place them in the vagina – something to wedge in there to prevent things from falling out. In Rome they used to do the same thing – rocks or potatoes have been reported in literature, which I don’t advise. But the simple idea of a pessary is something that has been in existence for hundreds and hundreds of years. What’s nice about it is that you can be fitted for them. They can be easily taken care of by yourself or a doctor. They should be comfortable when they’re in place, they should never cause pain. Some people think it’s something they can do temporarily and that it’s not something that can be left or something they can use long-term. But I have many patients that are very happy with their pessaries and it helps their quality of life, and you can basically have a pessary for the rest of your life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have surgery.
Ironside: What do pessaries look like?
Dr. Greenleaf: They do come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, just like the vagina comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The shape is determined by how well it wedges in the vagina. Some of them look just like a little Frisbee, some look like doughnuts, the more extreme ones look a little bit like a cube. So there’s different shapes and your healthcare practitioner can help determine which shape and size is the best for you. Some people feel comfortable and can be easily taught to take them in and out themselves and we may have people take them out every day and wash them; they can come out once a week. Interestingly enough, there’s no standard of care for how long they can be left in. Usually the recommendation is not to have them in place for longer than 6 months at a time. The longer they’re left in, the body will produce a heavy discharge in response to the foreign body. But a lot of times patients will ask, “will this cause an infection? Can I get injured from these things?” Very, very rare that that happens. This is a simple, easy, non-surgical way to manage a prolapse. So some people surgery is just not the answer if they have health conditions and not wanting to undergo surgery, or some people are just not mentally ready to undergo surgery. So this is something great that can kind of bridge that gap so you can decide if you eventually want to have a surgery.
Ironside: As a surgeon who has performed many surgeries to correct prolapse, what have you seen regarding long term results?
Dr. Greenleaf: The unfortunate thing about pelvic surgeries for a dropped bladder, or uterus, or rectum was that we used to believe that you got surgery and that was great, and you’d be good for the rest of your life. Unfortunately none of those surgeries are considered permanent and a certain portion of patients once they have surgery are at higher risk for things drooping and dropping again. It would be nice to be like your appendix, if your appendix is out it’s out it’s not like prolapse surgery and never going to happen again. Pessaries just may be a great option for somebody who’s a little nervous about the idea of surgery or just not ready for it yet. Sometimes we even use it to try out how a patient is going to feel once the bladder and uterus is put back where it’s supposed to be. It can be used as a diagnostic way to evaluate a patient’s condition. But once again, they’re really easy to manage. Depending on the shape and size you can still engage in sexual activity with them. Some people think you can’t have sex with them in place, certain shapes and sizes you can. They don’t necessarily need to be taken out. Just when it comes to care for them, they can easily be taken out and cleaned with soap and water and then put back. Some people can take them out themselves, others will go to their health practitioner to be cleaned. But sometimes, we’re talking about bladder and uterus, but if the rectum is falling these pessaries can also hold up the rectal side of the pelvis and they may help people who are getting constipation from the rectum drooping and dropping. That’s another advantage of the pessary. It’s fun when you use something that really hasn’t changed in technology in hundreds of years and I think that we as healthcare practitioners forget to go back to the basics, so this is a great option for people.
Ironside: I love how when you treat you’re able to cover this gamut of treating the person with these very modern approaches such as lasers, looking into the vaginal microbiome, but as you said that sometimes going back to the basics of the most simple things can prevent people from undergoing surgeries that may or may not help them and also offer a comfort level about something a pessary. You’re giving them this option of something very, very basic that they can manage themselves and they’re not going to be afraid that it’s unsexy or unappealing; they’re just going to feel more like themselves without any surgical intervention. I want to thank you so very much for joining us today Dr. Greenleaf. It has been outstanding talking to you.
Dr. Greenleaf: Thank you so much. I am very passionate about these things and have such a great time talking about this stuff, so if you guys are on social media follow me. If you look for Dr. Betsy Greenleaf you can find me pretty much anywhere; I’m all over social media. I have a podcast called “Some of Your Parts” and we have another podcast called “Body Mind Spirit.” Last but not least, I have a website called “The Pelvic Floor Store” that we’re constantly trying to put out new and improved information. Thank you once again for having me.
Ironside: Thanks so much.
Dr. Betsy A.B. Greenleaf DO, FACOOG (Distinguished), FACOG, FAAOPM, FPMRS, MBA
America's "Down There" DoctorTM,
First Board Certified Female Urogynecologist in the United States
Board Certified in Obstetrics/Gynecology
Board Certified in Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery
Board Certified in Procedural Medicine and Aesthetics
Masters of Business in Strategic Management and Innovation
Follow her at:
April through May 2020
Marzena Bard, PTA, CYT brought yoga to our homes over Zoom twice a week, offering Chair Yoga and Relieve Stress & Rebuild Strength Yoga to help the community stay active and connected despite sheltering at home.
Sit back and tune in to our own Michelle Dela Rosa, PT as she speaks on the "Stay Healthy Mercer County" podcast by Adapt Performance and Rehab. Learn what makes pelvic physical therapy different from other kinds of therapy, how there's help for pelvic pain, and that men have a pelvic floor too!
Click here to listen to the podcast episode.
Foye: I think that the biggest problem is that the vast majority of physicians unfortunately have a huge blind spot when it comes to understanding coccyx [tailbone] pain. We learned almost nothing about the coccyx in medical school. This leads to four main problems.
Dela Rosa: Your book Tailbone Pain Relief Now! describes the many reasons why people end up with tailbone pain. Are there 1 or 2 causes of tailbone pain that are more common than others?
Foye: Great question! By far the most common cause coccyx pain is when there is an unstable joint between the bones of the coccyx. Many medical textbooks and websites incorrectly state that the coccyx is a single fused bone. But that is rarely true. In the vast majority of humans, there are 3 to 5 individual coccygeal bones, with variability in whether there is fusion between any of those bones. Most people have at least a few coccygeal joints. And most people with coccyx pain have joint hypermobility (excessive movement) as the source of their pain.
The second most common cause of coccyx pain is a "bone spur"; extending from the lowest tip of the coccyx. When this happens at the bottom of the coccyx, there is thickening of the bone that projects backwards, often coming to a sharp focal point. It’s almost like a tiny icicle made of bone. This bone spur pinches the skin between the spur and the chair where the patient sits, and especially when they sit leaning partly backwards.
Dela Rosa: Thank you for clarifying the common causes of tailbone pain. In your book, you detail some of the seat cushions and medications that may help. People ask about injections for pain. As a pain management doctor, would injections be helpful for these causes and if so, could you describe how and what kind?
Foye: Sure it's a great question. Medications by mouth have a couple of big problems with them, which is why a lot of times medication given focally by a small local injection could be superior.
When medications are given by mouth, number one they go through multiple places throughout the body. If you're taking medication by mouth, they can cause side effects in the stomach, the intestines, the liver, and the kidneys, so the side effects can be quite limiting.
The second problem with medications by mouth is that because the medicine travels throughout the entire body, it gets diluted out. So only a minuscule amount of the medication actually makes it to the tailbone where the patient needs it the most. Many of these patients do respond to medication given locally at the site. Typically, that's done under fluoroscopic guidance. Fluoroscopy is like x-ray up on a computer screen, and using fluoroscopy we can target a specific location at the tailbone. I'm generally opposed to blind injections, which is where injections are done without any image guidance because 1) you can't guarantee where the medication is going to go and whether it's actually given at a place where it's going to be helpful, and 2) you also can get into problems if it's given in the wrong place - it can cause side effects.
So back to your question, which was about the diagnoses like hypermobility or a bone spur... Absolutely those can respond very, very well to placing medication locally at the spot under image guidance. Often that's a combination of steroid which helps to fight inflammation, and also local anesthetic which can be given as a nerve block and can be very helpful when there's hyperactivity or hyperirritability of the nerves.
Dela Rosa: How is the x-ray your center performs different than how many other facilities perform the test?
Foye: Here at the Coccyx Pain Center, the biggest difference is that we take coccyx x-rays while the patient is sitting down, since that is when tailbone pain hurts the most. I have trained the radiology technicians here regarding how to properly perform this technique, which was first developed in France. Very few places in the United States have ever heard of this approach and even fewer are experienced at doing these x-rays properly. We have evaluated and treated thousands of patients with tailbone pain, many of whom fly in from around the country and internationally. And it is extremely common that patients had previous imaging studies that were read as being normal. But then they come here and our seated x-rays show that when the person sits down and leans backwards (putting their body weight onto the coccyx) they often have very dramatic dislocations or other abnormalities that would be completely undetected if the x-rays had not been done while the patient was sitting. It is a huge relief for patients to finally have an answer as to what is causing their pain. Then, when we have identified a specific cause for their pain, we can provide treatments for that specific cause, which is much more likely to be helpful than generic treatments done blindly without a diagnosis.
Foye: A lot of this goes back to and starts with the general lack of awareness that physicians, radiologists and radiology technicians have about tailbone pain. Frequently, they lump it all in with low back pain. Lumbosacral pain is thousands of times more common than tailbone pain. A lot of the automatic checkoff boxes that people have on their radiology x-ray or MRI forms will have a box to check off for lumbar spine or lumbosacral spine, but they will not have a box to check off for the coccyx or tailbone just because it is thousands of times less common. So what happens is that the primary care doctor, or the orthopedic surgeon, or the pain management doctor, will check off the box and order lumbar or lumbosacral x-rays or MRI, and then that doesn't even include the tailbone at all.
The next problem then is that the study gets done and the patient is told that there's nothing wrong, and that there's no explanation for their pain when really the images did not even include the symptomatic area, or worse yet, it shows an incidental finding of the lumbar spine that may not be causing any symptoms at all. But now they start down the treatment path of epidural injections, and even spine surgery and other things for a part of the body that wasn't even causing the problem. So basically back to your question about what the patient can do: 1) look at the orders, look at the x-ray or MRI orders, make sure that the ordering physician has specifically explicitly requested imaging of the coccyx, and 2) when you go into the radiology center, make a point of talking to the radiology technician and being crystal clear with them that this is not your lumbar spine, that this is not up in the small of your back at the belt line, that the pain is specifically down at the coccyx, and make sure that the radiology technician is going to include that part of the anatomy within the study. It really does require a certain amount of self-advocacy by the patient unfortunately to fight this uphill battle against the ignorance that's out there.
Dela Rosa: I'm just curious, have people come to you from outside of the US? Or are you mostly seeing people domestically?
Foye: Most of my patients travel in from out-of-state and about a third of my patients fly in. It's maybe 5% or less that are international. Within the last six to 12 months, I've had patients from Japan, Sweden, Africa, the UK, New Zealand, and I think two from Australia. Which really just gets back to that there's this unmet need out there and patients who are not able to find local clinicians who will either take them seriously or that know the appropriate testing and treatments to provide.
Dela Rosa: How do you work with pelvic floor physical therapists in the treatment of tailbone pain?
Foye: As a physician specializing in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), I'm a strong advocate for the role of physical therapists in treating patients who are suffering from painful musculoskeletal conditions. Historically, a big problem was that very few physical therapists were comfortable or experienced in treating pelvic floor problems. Fortunately, that has been improving in recent years.
The pelvic floor is often described as being like a muscular sling, or hammock, which supports and holds up the pelvic organs. The back end of that sling has attachments to the coccyx. Pelvic floor physical therapists and I often collaborate on figuring out the "chicken and the egg" phenomenon. By that I mean that we assess whether a patient is having tailbone pain due to pulling and tugging onto the tailbone caused by tightness and spasms of the muscles that attach to the coccyx. Or, sometimes it could be just the reverse: a painful condition at the coccyx itself might be causing reactive muscle spasm and guarding of the pelvic floor. If evaluation and treatment at one location is not providing adequate relief, then it often makes sense to collaborate and to consult each other, to help the patients find the answers and relief that they deserve.
Question from Don:
“I am 32 years old and have no difficulty with sex. I do find that it is hard for me to pee after ejaculation. Is this normal? And should I be forcing out pee after sex?”
Answer from Becca:
“What you are describing is very normal. The muscles of your pelvic floor that allow you to maintain an erection and expel semen during ejaculation are in a shortened position during sex. These same muscles must be completely relaxed and elongated to allow urine to exit the urethra. Asking your body to pee immediately after having sex is like decelerating a car from 90 mph to a full stop. The pelvic floor muscles are too revved up after climax to stretch and relax. Instead of ‘forcing out pee after sex’, try sitting on the toilet and taking some deep breaths. This will allow whatever is within the bladder to naturally come out of your penis. And if you do not have the urge to pee after sex, you needn’t try this at all.”
Question from Gary:
“I am 53 years old and in pretty good shape. I have diabetes and my erections are not as strong as they used to be. My doctor has tried to give me Cialis; it works only some of the time, and it is very expensive. Are there any tips that you could offer as a pelvic floor physical therapist to improve my erections?”
Answer from Becca:
“Erectile dysfunction and diabetes are often linked. This is because having high blood sugar in the body alters circulation of blood and leads to nerve damage over time. The good news is that this type of erectile dysfunction can be reversed with good lifestyle choices. Maintaining a good diet for stable blood sugar, regular exercise and stress reduction can all help to improve your sexual response. From a physical therapy perspective, we can teach you how to isolate and contract your pelvic floor muscles during sex (also known as Kegel exercises), and improve your core strength. This will allow for increased rigidity of erections. You are one of so many men with exactly the same problem; there is help in pelvic floor physical therapy for a better sex life.”
Question from Pedro:
“I am 28 and began having groin pain over one year ago. I have penile pain along my shaft and up towards the tip, both during and after sex. It helps when I masturbate versus have sex with someone else, because I can avoid the tip of my penis and ejaculate with much less pain. I am not having sex with anyone at the moment, but I am worried because I used to get morning erections and now I don’t. Is this normal? I can’t exactly ask my friends.”
Answer from Becca:
“This is a multi-pronged question, so I want to be careful that I address each part of it. First, a great place for you to start if you have penile pain would be to go to a physician. There may be an infection under your foreskin (known as Balanitis), certain cancers or scar tissue development within the penis (also named Peyronie’s disease. You may have seen commercials on television about this diagnosis). Once your physician has ruled out any medical cause for the pain in your penis, a pelvic floor physical therapist can assess the musculature of your pelvis to determine if there are any imbalances or muscle tension that may be driving your pain.
“Second, having pain in the penis is one of the symptoms of Chronic Male Pelvic Pain Syndrome. That is not to say you have this diagnosis, Pedro. But this description of your problem is more common than you know. In pelvic floor physical therapy, we treat many men with penile, testicular, perineal and rectal pain. The causation of this pain is often tight musculature in the saddle area. Relaxation of these muscles can do wonders, but it is often difficult for guys to learn how to relax this region of the body without some guidance.
“Thirdly, many men with such symptoms tend to prefer masturbation to sex with a partner, especially when they are having a flare-up of pain. This is because, just as you mentioned, only you know what hurts and how to avoid pain during sex. Your partner will have a more challenging time working around your specific pain. That said, once your symptoms are decreasing in severity, the reintroduction of sex with a partner can be a creative and exciting learning curve. Physical therapists can help with this area of problem-solving with both partners.
“Lastly, morning erections are the body’s natural response from overflow of the parasympathetic nerves in your spine. In other words, the nerves are sending calming signals to the pelvis during sleep. This explains why having erections in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning is not a result of having erotic dreams or a person feeling aroused, per se; rather, the body is in a calm state and the testicles and penis become engorged with blood during sleep. Your lack of morning erections is consistent with your penile pain. This is because your pelvis is not relaxing appropriately during the sleep cycle to facilitate those erections. Many men with pelvic pain find that their morning erections return once their symptoms of pain are better managed. This is a good sign that the muscles of the pelvis are relaxing and allowing the return of painfree arousal and improved sex.”
A lot of people ask us about the practice of physiatry. Some people know how it's pain management, but they don't really know how it's different than seeing their gynecologist or their urologist in the way they would treat their pelvic pain. So, can you give me a general overview to describe physiatry and how it treats pelvic pain differently than their gynecologist or their urologist.
Dr. Shrikande: Sure, thank you so much for having me, Michelle, this is great. For a physiatrist treating pelvic pain, we help the other doctors treat the muscles, the nerves, and the joints of the pelvis in a non-operative approach.
Michelle: How would that be different--can you give me examples of treatments that people may not see with their doctor that they're already seeing?
Dr. Shrikande: Essentially, we want to look at it from more of a sports medicine approach, seeing if the pelvic pain is coming from the pelvic floor musculature. Are the muscles in spasm and potentially irritating the nerves of the pelvis, causing some pain? So that's where we would come in when we're evaluating patients. Is there a pelvic floor muscle spasm, which we call pelvic floor hypertonia and can cause pain in patients. And we're really trying to evaluate why this is happening and is there anything from the sports medicine standpoint where we can identify a cause and help to find a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Michelle: I was lucky enough to be able to shadow you for an afternoon and I noticed that while you were treating patients, you were interested in not just recognizing that there was spasm, but like you said, what else could be contributing to it. So what other things do you look for that could be contributing to pelvic spasm?
Dr. Shrikande: From the musculoskeletal or the sports medicine standpoint, you want to see if there's anything going on in the lumbar spine that can cause pelvic floor dysfunction. Or is there anything going on in the sacroiliac joint? Or you want to consider the hips--are the hips working, functioning well? And is there any underlying pathology in the hips as well as what we call the pubic symphysis, which is the joint in the anterior aspect of the pelvis. In addition, is there anything going on from the other specialties as well that could be causing this secondary guarding of the pelvic floor muscles? So is there a gynecological reason if it's a female, or urological reason if you're male or female, or maybe from the GI system, etc? But you really want to say, 'Is there anything else going on here that's causing these muscles to go into this guarding state where it's really not letting go very well?'
Michelle: This is interesting because so many of my patients say they've gotten a diagnosis of pelvic spasm, but they didn't really get checked out. As a physiatrist, you are doing a pelvic exam?
Dr. Shrikande: When you see us, we would do a full exam--again looking at your back, your hips, etc--but we do end the exam evaluating your pelvic floor both externally and internally. So we do an internal exam. I always tell our patients that we're not gynecologists, so we're really looking at the muscles and distribution of the nerves internally. But we would do an internal exam and it does not require a speculum. It would be similar to an internal exam of a pelvic floor physical therapist--we really look at the tone of the muscles, the strength, and the lift of the pelvic floor, and follow the nerve distribution internally to see if there's any increased sensitivity or pain internally.
Michelle: Wonderful, we have such a growing population of men coming to see us for pelvic pain as well. And they're always curious how your exam would be different or how you would be able to help them because they're hearing that a lot of these treatments are for women. Would they be able to access you and what would you be able to offer them?
Dr. Shrikande: We see a lot of men here at Pelvic Rehabilitation Medicine, about equal amounts of men and women. From the muscle, nerve and joint standpoint, the anatomy is actually the same. For us, evaluating men and women, it is a similar approach. For the men, we do look at your lumbar spine, hips, and abdomen, any concern for underlying hernias that could have been missed. But then we do an internal pelvic floor exam as well--it would be internal rectally, also evaluating the muscle's tone and lift and any nerve tenderness internally. With men it would be a similar approach trying to see if there is any possible underlying cause for pelvic floor guarding. And then it's a full body treatment approach where we really can--we call it down-regulate--or calm down the nerves, of both the central and peripheral nervous system and increase blood flow to your muscles, and get the muscles longer and stronger to rehabilitate the pelvic floor.
Michelle: Many of our patients have been seeing multiple providers. And I noticed that in your practice, you seem to be a gateway to many of the other providers, sort of--coordinating care. Is that part of your model of care and how would you say your practice runs differently than other practices that treat pelvic pain?
Dr. Shrikande: Definitely. We see ourselves as the quarterback here, because as rehabilitation doctors, we really are trained from the beginning to look at the whole body and the interplay between multiple organ systems. So quite often, we are talking to a patient, and in our minds, thinking if there's any other specialist that we would need to bring into the picture to help us get this patient better. We work closely with specialists who are excellent in treating the pelvic pain from their angle. But we do see ourselves as the quarterback kind of sending as needed, as well as working closely with pelvic floor physical therapy, to figure out how to get our patients better and what other specialty is needed to calm down their muscles and their nerves.
Michelle: Some of our patients have been getting injections for their pelvic floor and they've been given an option for steroid. I know that you have other options, and also, can you touch upon the imaging that you use to guide you through the injections--if injections are necessary.
Dr. Shrikande: The way we do our injections, or treatments as we like to say…everything is external, nothing is internal. So it's all external, along the sling of the pelvic floor, and they're ultrasound guided. Patients call them their butt injections, that's kind of what it feels like--it's not internal, it's external. The idea behind the guidance is like internal eyes so you can see where you're going. And in addition, it allows us to do a hydrodissection technique, where we can really open up the fascial planes and create space where there is restriction, particularly where the nerves want to flow. What we're using to supplement for a steroid, is something called Traumeel, which is a homeopathic medicine, so it's derived from plants. The main ingredient is arnica--a lot of people have heard of arnica cream like topical arnica--but this is an injectable form of arnica and in combination with echinacea. So it's a nice way to promote healing in addition to decreasing inflammation, which is why we love it. I really used it more in my plastic surgery rotation. Post-operatively we would give it out after a surgery so that patients wouldn't become as bruised and swollen. It would decrease inflammation and promote a faster healing topically. So that's where the idea kind of came from.
Michelle: I know that one of the positions that you hold is that you're the Chair of the Medical Education Committee for the International Pelvic Pain Society. How do you feel that the position helps to shape what you do in your practice and helps shape how pelvic medicine is moving for the future?
Dr. Shrikande: We're actually lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing, intelligent, pelvic health practitioners who constantly push me to really think about things and learn more. The mission of what we do is educate the future of pelvic health from the medical practitioner standpoint--from both the residency program and urology, as well as gynecology and physiatry and any pelvic floor physical therapist who's had training there--just to try and increase awareness for the people who are training, that the pelvic floor itself is its own distinct entity. And although it does not show up in imaging, we really should not ignore it, particularly when the workup is normal and the patient symptoms persist. So we're really trying to raise awareness and at an earlier stage in physician's medical careers, in hopes of getting all our patients recognition earlier and treatment earlier. Because we really believe that is the key--early recognition and early treatment, to squashing it early and getting patients better.
Michelle: What's the range of people that you see in terms of how long patients have had pelvic pain for prior to seeing you? Is there a range?
Dr. Shrikande: It's getting better by the day. But still at this point, the average is six months to 25/30 years worth of symptoms. Even six months is rarest. It's really along the lines of 1.5 years to 25 years.
Michelle: Hmm, yeah. So, both of us are working on that.
Dr. Shrikande: We have to work together.