Amy Stein BCB-PMD, IF (Pronouns: She, Her, Hers)
Fiona McMahon PT, DPT (Pronouns: She, Her, Hers)
We’ve written a lot of blogs over endometriosis (endo) over the years. It is a common diagnosis at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, and frankly, out in the world. The current estimate is 1 in 10 people with female anatomy have endometriosis, and the average time for a proper diagnosis is 11 years. This number may be subject to change as currently laparoscopic surgery is the gold standard for diagnosis. We write extensively about what endometriosis is, and how it is thought to develop in this blog, But the cliff notes version is that endometriosis is the deposition of endometrial-like cells outside of the uterus. There actually was some degree of controversy about what the deposits actually are. It was originally thought that the deposits were endometrium (the lining of the uterus), but now the endo community is moving away from that thought. The deposits can cause a whole host of symptoms, or none at all. Symptoms severity is not related to the number/amount of endometrial deposits someone has. We still don’t know why some people with large amounts of endometrial implants and or adhesions can experience little to no symptoms, while others who have a relatively small amount of endometrial deposits may experience debilitating pain.
For most people who know anything about endometriosis, they know it is associated with painful periods. Although this is true, if we look at painful periods, we may be missing a lot of other endometriosis-related symptoms. Endo can affect the urinary system, resulting in urinary pain, hesitancy, frequency, urgency, and incomplete emptying. It can cause painful defecation and constipation, and it can affect your sex life causing pain with penetration and or orgasm. Endo can present itself in so many diverse ways and two people with endo may present completely differently.
For individuals with symptoms from endo, there is a lot that can be done to help minimize pain. But the same approach is not always effective for everyone. It is really important to look at your own goals when deciding on what to focus on so you can express them to your care team.
There is no magic pill or treatment that works on every endo patient. Oral medicines, surgery, physical therapy, nutrition, and lifestyle changes can all help with symptoms of endo. Often times treating endo requires some combination of all of these things and the frustrating part is what may have worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you. We will take a little look, (by no means exhaustive) at each one of these interventions with the intention of piquing your interest and hopefully facilitating a discussion about these options with your healthcare provider.
Endometriosis is thought to be an estrogen-driven condition. Some people with endo may find relief from medications that affect hormone levels. Oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) are an example of medication used to affect hormone levels. There are other options beyond OCPs that work to alter hormone levels. For some people with endo, this approach can be helpful for symptom management, although hormone altering medication won’t cure endo. You do have to consider the side effects of all the medication options however because some of the side effects can be worse than the medication’s positive effects.
Excision surgery is both treatment and the gold standard for diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis. Surgery works by cutting out the endometrial deposits. Performing biopsies on these deposits allows the practitioner to know if the deposit is Endo. Ablation surgery has been shown to only clear part of the endometrial implants and is not nearly as comprehensive as excision surgery. As a result, repeat surgery is commonly required with ablation, and in many cases, multiple repeat surgeries.
So we’ve just explained to you that endo is an estrogen-dependent condition that causes deposits in the abdominal cavity. Logically it makes sense that getting rid of these deposits via surgery or slowing their growth with medication could help treat endo and the pain associated with it. But what does physical therapy have to do with the treatment of endometriosis? The answers range from simple to complex, with the complex delving into some pretty heady neuroscience. Why don’t we start with the simple first, and get more complex as we go.
The deposits created in the abdominal cavity by endo can cause the tissues of the abdomen to get stuck and not slide and glide freely, we call those stuck areas, tissue restrictions or adhesions. The scars created by endo removal surgery cause adhesions. Sounds pretty bleak, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Physical therapists have been treating scars for eons (actually since the start of the civil war, but we digress). Whether or not you have had surgery, chances are you will benefit from some myofascial release, which can help reduce endo and surgery related adhesions. Although most physical therapists know their way around scar massage, it is important to go to one who has been specially trained in pelvic floor conditions and ideally has been trained in visceral mobilization. This training will allow your PT to address adhesions of the viscera (your organs) as well as allow them to work on adhesions in the pelvic bowl by performing intravaginal and intrarectal release.
Here’s where it gets heady, bare with me. Let’s start with defining my subheading. Trigger points are taut bands of muscle that are extremely irritable. Trigger points can be described as “latent”, meaning they are painful when touched, or they may be an active myofascial trigger point, which is constantly angry and can refer pain elsewhere in the body. Trigger points in the abdominal-pelvic region can radiate to some funny places far away from where they actually are. Someone may feel the referred pain from a trigger point in their belly or back, near their bladder, or in their “ovary”, as well as other places. Physical therapy can help relieve these trigger points by performing myofascial release as well as using techniques like biofeedback to help you learn how to relax your pelvic floor and prevent trigger points from reoccurring.
People who have been in pain for a long time may experience a phenomenon called central sensitization. What that means is the body, in an effort to protect you, starts perceiving things that wouldn’t necessarily be painful as painful. No one actively does this, and it is not in your head. It actually happens in the spinal cord and brain. This is what I mean by endo lowering pain thresholds. Physical therapy can be instrumental in improving pain thresholds through a process of desensitization.
What we just discussed are some of the most common things physical therapists address in patients with endometriosis. But let us not forget that everyone with endo experiences it differently. Pelvic floor physical therapists may address issues with urination, sex, and bowel movements directly as well as other issues like weakness, joint pain, and instability. It really is specific to the individual with endo.
Many people find relief in making adjustments to their lifestyle and diet. There have been numerous studies on the benefits of yoga on endo pain, as well as making changes in diet such as avoiding gluten, dairy, sugar, caffeine or committing to an IC and anti-inflammatory diet. In my experience, different things will work better for different people, but we have seen these changes be extremely helpful for some people. We write more about these changes in this blog.
We hope this blog was helpful to you. Having endo can really suck (we can’t think of a better word for it). If you think you may have endo, talk to a gyno who specializes in the treatment of endometriosis, because there is something you can do about your symptoms. Endo is a disease which requires much more research and awareness. Please take time this March to wear some yellow and do your part to spread endo awareness to physicians and other healthcare providers, to high schools and to your community.
Alimi Y, Iwanga J, Loukas M, et al. The clinical anatomy of endometriosis: A review. Cureus. 2108
Aredo J, Heyrana K, Karp B, et al. Relating chronic pelvic pain and endometriosis to signs of sensitization and myofascial pain and dysfunction. Semin Reprod Med. 2017; 35(1):88-97
Mayo Clinic. “Endometriosis”.
. Accessed on February 19, 2019
Mehedintu C, Plotogea MN, Ionescu S. Endometriosis is still a challenge. Journal of Medicine and Life. 2014. 7(3); 349-57