Trigger Warning: This piece briefly discusses sexual assault.
Fiona McMahon PT, DPT
Last summer, a reporter came to our office. This is usually not a tremendously unusual circumstance at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy. We often have reporters come to our office to research conditions like dyspareunia (painful vaginal intercourse), endometriosis, painful bladder syndrome/interstitial cystitis, prostatitis, and the many other conditions we treat. This time was different. This reporter was researching legitimate medically necessary pelvic floor physical therapy to put into context what was currently happening in USA gymnastics and the Larry Nassar story.
The Larry Nassar story rocked the pelvic floor world to our core. Larry Nassar was a USA Gymnastics Team physician who sexually abused girls for decades, under the guise of providing “pelvic floor treatment”. For those of us who have spent our lives promoting, educating, and treating both men and women with pelvic floor dysfunction, to see pelvic floor treatment perverted into a way to systematically abuse women and girls, it was truly heartbreaking.
We at Beyond Basics PT feel it is imperative to ensure that every patient knows his or her own rights and what to do if they feel uncomfortable. Although we are writing this in the context of pelvic floor physical therapy. Keep in mind, that much of what we talk about applies to interactions with other healthcare professionals.
Before we get started, let’s discuss why one might need to have their genital region examined in the course of physical therapy treatment. Pelvic floor dysfunction refers to a whole host of symptoms mainly felt in the pelvis, although they may appear in other parts of the body. These symptoms may include and are not limited to both male and female pelvic pain, urinary, bowel and sexual issues. Treatment may include external manipulation of the pelvic floor and genital region as well as manipulation of the pelvic floor muscles by inserting a gloved finger into the anus or the vagina. These techniques are used in combination with other osteopathic techniques to improve muscle length and strength, as well as reducing spasm within the pelvic floor and surrounding areas. To read more about what pelvic floor physical therapy is, click here. Pelvic floor physical therapy can be life changing when performed appropriately. It can allow an individual to go back to work or back to school, or the tolerance to sit on a plane to visit family, when doing so would have been too painful prior to physical therapy. It can allow an individual to have painless sex (male and female, same sex or opposite sex sex), and it can allow someone to regain continence who before was socially isolated. Pelvic floor physical therapy is a legitimate means of improving the health and quality of life of an individual. We will include peer reviewed articles below if you would like to read more.
Given the intimate nature of the treatment as well as the power dynamic that sometimes may exist between patient and clinician, it is important to discuss what rights you have as a patient in order to make yourself feel more comfortable. The following outlines your rights as a patient receiving any type of medical treatment.
When you step through the door of any medical office for the first time, you get handed what feels like fistfuls of paperwork. In that paperwork, there should always be a consent form. This form must be signed before you are treated, the exception being in medically emergent situations, when you become unconscious and consent is implied for life saving medical intervention.
Remember, just because you signed the form before treatment, doesn’t mean you consent to any and all treatment. You may always revoke your consent by saying you don’t want to participate in a procedure or intervention by saying so.
We want you to feel comfortable. If a treatment course makes you uncomfortable, tell us. Gritting your teeth and tolerating an uncomfortable treatment can sometimes do more harm than good. It is also appropriate to revoke consent to be treated if you are unsure why a treatment is being done or suspect it may not be necessary. Our jobs as clinicians are not only to treat but to educate. If you don’t know why we are doing a certain technique, we need to take time to educate you in order to do our job correctly. Revoking consent can be as simple as telling your practitioner you do not want to engage in a certain activity. Practitioners may take time to explain why they feel that intervention is necessary; however they should never make you feel ashamed for revoking consent. Remember, you are not in the clinic to please us. You are there for yourself. To get better. That is it.
Even if you truly need a pelvic floor treatment, often times there are other parts of the body that should be addressed to aid in certain pelvic conditions. Skilled practitioners can delay pelvic floor treatment by treating other parts of the body until you are ready. This can often be done while still maintaining forward progress.
Chaperones are individuals who accompany you to medical and physical therapy exams and treatments. If having a chaperone attend a visit or visits would make you more comfortable, you should be allowed to bring one. You should be able to bring a family members, or a friend into treatment. If you don’t have someone to fill this role, you can ask the facility to supply you with one, (usually asking ahead of time will ensure a staff member is available). In very few cases, such as surgery or trauma interventions, is it appropriate for a patient to be denied a chaperone if he or she requests it.
What if your clinician gives you a diagnosis or suggests a treatment that doesn’t sound right? This is where a second opinion really comes in handy. Getting a second opinion is not “cheating” on your doctor, it can allow you to explore other options or be more confident in your original provider’s course of action.
Respect and Comfort
Feeling respected by your clinician is essential to healing . If you feel that you are not getting the respect you deserve or even if you are not connecting with clinician for whatever reason, you have the right to change clinicians. You don’t have to feel obligated to explain why you are changing clinicians if you don’t want to. Most healthcare providers realize that we might not have the right clinician for every person, and we are trained to not take it personally. It is okay to put yourself first.
Red Flags in Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy
- Feeling coerced, bullied, or shamed into a pelvic floor treatment
- Therapist does not wear gloves for treatment
- Therapist insists on not allowing chaperone
- Therapist fails to offer adequate reason for treating the pelvic floor
- Therapist is not licensed
- You therapist acts in a way to make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable
The truth is, there are so many wonderful physical therapists out there who treat the pelvic floor. Being a physical therapist is one of the greatest jobs in the world, because we get to help people do things that before were difficult or impossible. Pelvic floor physical therapy changes lives. We sincerely hope this article helps you feel empowered to go to physical therapy and know what your rights are and what to expect.
Further reading on pelvic pain:
International Pelvic Pain Society: www.pelvicpain.org
International Society of the Study of Women’s Sexual Health: www.isswsh.org
Heal Pelvic Pain
By: Amy Stein DPT
Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain DVD
By: Amy Stein DPT
When Sex Hurts
By: Andrew Goldstein, MD and Caroline Pukall, PhD
Healing Painful Sex
By: Deborah Coady, MD and Nancy Fish, PhD
Anderson R, Wise D, Sawyer T. Integration of myofascial trigger point release and paradoxical relaxation training treatment of chronic pelvic pain in men. J Urol. 2005;174(1):155-60
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
Fitzgerald M, Kotarinos R. Rehabilitation of the short pelvic floor. I: Background and patient evaluation. Int Urogynecol J 2003; 14:261-8
Fitzgerald M, Kotarinos R. Rehabilitation of the short pelvic floor. II: Treatment of patient with the short pelvic floor. Int Urogynecol J 2003;14: 269-72
King H. Manual Therapy May benefit women with interstitial cystitis and pelvic floor pain. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2013;(113)4: 350-61
Morin M. Bergeron S. Pelvic floor rehabilitation in the treatment of dyspareunia in women. Sexologies. 2009; 18:91-4
Shafik A, Shafik I. Overactive bladder inhibition in response to pelvic floor muscle exercises. World J Urol. 2003 May; 20(6):347-7. Epub. Apr 4
Wurn B, Wurn L, Patterson K. Decreasing dyspareunia and dysmenorrhea in women with endometriosis via a manual therapy: results from two independent studies. 2011;3(4)