By Fiona McMahon, PT, DPT
Testicles have long held a special place in our society. In fact, the word testis means “witness of virility” in Latin. They help produce the hormones that spark puberty. They are responsible for body hair, the growth of the penis, and sex drive.
Testicles are gonads. Gonads are sex organs that produce sex cells. People with male anatomy produce sperm and people with female anatomy produce ova (eggs). Testicles also produce the hormone testosterone, which as stated earlier is responsible for people with male anatomy’s secondary sex characteristics, like body hair, muscle bulk, and sex drive.
Testicles are housed in the scrotum, a sack of skin just behind the penis. Within the scrotum, the testicles are covered by a fibrous sheath called the tunica vaginalis and tunica albuginea. The testicles are composed of many tightly bound tubules called the seminiferous tubules. These tubules give the testicles their uneven feel. Each testicle is held in the scrotum by the spermatic cord, which is composed of the vas deferens, blood vessels, and lymph vessels.
Anyone who has watched an Adam Sandler movie knows that testicles are delicate and sensitive creatures. Even just a jostle can be enough to double one over in pain. But sometimes your testicles may hurt for no apparent reason. Acute scrotum is the technical name given to sudden onset testicular pain without swelling. There are many medical reasons your testicles may hurt. Testicular pain can be a serious condition and should not be ignored.
Testicular torsion is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in order to save the testicle. Testicular torsion is most common in people with male anatomy under the age of 25. It occurs when the spermatic cord twists cutting off blood supply to the testes. Usually testicular torsion is spontaneous and cause pain great enough to wake a one out of sleep and induce vomiting.
In some people testicular torsion is contributed to by what is known as a bell clapper deformity. A bell clapper deformity occurs when there is a lack of fixation in the tunica vaginalis. Because of this lack of fixation, the testis is free to rotate around on itself and obstruct blood flow. Bell clapper deformities are present in 12% of males and in males with bell clapper deformity 40% have bilateral derformity. In neonates, extravaginal torsion can occur when the tunica vaginalis and the testes both twist in the inguinal canal. Any case of sudden and severe testicular pain should be considered testicular torsion until proven otherwise and treated as a medical emergency.
Testicular cancer is usually painless but in 20% of cases pain can be a symptom. The pain caused by testicular cancer is typically due to hemorrhage. In the overall population testicular cancer is relatively rare, however it is the most common form of cancer in young males between the ages of 15 and 35. Signs of testicular cancer include a dull ache in the abdomen and groin, heaviness in the scrotum, lump in the testicle, enlargement of the breast tissue, or back pain. Any of these symptoms warrant a visit to your general practitioner.
So what about testicular pain that is not cancer or testicular torsion? Testicular pain can also be caused by other medical conditions like epididymitis, orchitis, urinary reflux, urinary tract infection, or sexually transmitted infection. Again as stated before, any acute testicular pain that occurs out of the blue warrants immediate medical attention.
There are some people however who suffer from acute and recurrent testicular pain for which a medical cause has not been established. For these people, not having concrete answers for what is going on can be especially distressing. In a paper by Anderson and colleagues, trigger points elsewhere in the body have been found to cause pain in the testicles, shaft of the penis, and other areas in the genital region.
Trigger points are defined as areas of hypersensitive and painful spots within the muscle that can be felt as a tough or tight band. In their study, Anderson and colleagues found that testicular pain could be elicited in 80% of men with testicular pain with no other medical cause, when trigger points in the external obliques were palpated. The study also found other trigger points referring to the shaft of the penis, and the perineum (the bicycle seat area of the body). Myofascial restrictions can refer pain to testicles as well as reduce blood flow to the genitals, making erections difficult or painful.
Irritated nerves can also be the cause of testicular and penile pain. The pudendal nerve is most commonly associated with male pelvic pain. The pudendal nerve supplies sensation to many of the pelvic structures including the penis, scrotum, and anorecatal region. This nerve can become inflamed or strained for a variety of different reasons. Straining with constipation, boney alignment that stresses the nerve, as well as tight ligaments and muscles that surround the area can all stress the pudendal nerve and cause scrotal, anal, or penile pain.
Other nerves such as the Iliohypogastric can cause suprapubic and gluteal pain. The inguinal nerve can cause pain in the inner thigh, and lateral scrotal skin. The genital femoral is also associated with the skin of the scrotum and thigh.
If you find yourself with testicular or penile pain that has not been resolved with medical intervention, it may be time to find your way to a licensed pelvic floor physical therapist. Physical therapists can work with you to break up your trigger points, provide postural education to correct alignment, reduce constipation with bowel training, and incorporate relaxation and postural changes to prevent your pain from coming back. At Beyond Basics, we have a great team of therapists who treat pelvic floor disorders who can help treat your testicular pain.
Anatomy and physiology of the testicle. Canadian Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/testicular/anatomy-and-physiology/?region=on. Accessed June 10, 2015
Anderson R, Sawyer T, Wise D, Morey A. Painful myofascial trigger points and pain sites in men with chronic prostatitis/ chronic pelvis pain syndrome. The Journal of Urology, 182;6 2753-58
Jefferies M, Cox A, Gupta A et al. The management of acute testicular pain in children and adolescents. BMJ. 2015
Mayo Clinic Staff. Testicle Pain. Accessed June 8, 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/testicle-pain/basics/causes/sym-20050942
Mayo Clinic Staff. Testicular Cancer. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/testicular-cancer/basics/definition/con-20043068. Accessed June 10, 2015