Author: Dr. Rebecca Patton, PT, DPT
“I feel like you’re the first physical therapist who understands endo.” It’s a statement I wish I didn’t hear as often as I do. Unfortunately, there has not been a resource specifically made to evaluate pelvic physical therapists’ knowledge about endometriosis before iCareBetter.
Education for physical therapists regarding endometriosis needs more advanced continuing education courses. But it doesn’t typically happen until after completing a doctoral program. For perspective, I self-taught for several years before seeking specific classes related to endometriosis care. Therefore, it wasn’t until years after specializing in pelvic pain treatment that I realized the inefficiency of care for those with endometriosis. We can do better, but we have a long way to go.
Communicating with a pelvic physical therapist before seeking treatment can allow you to ask important questions to ensure you’re finding a provider that is a good fit for you. For achieving this goal, take advantage of time-saving strategies such as a phone consultation before committing to a therapist. Here are a few questions you may want to ask during that phone consultation or the first visit with a pelvic physical therapist for your endometriosis issues.
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1. Are you familiar with the disease process and current treatment standards for endometriosis?
It is helpful when your treating therapist is up to date on current treatment standards, as with any diagnosis. Unfortunately, there is no specific physical therapy protocol for treating patients with endometriosis. However, physical therapists should understand who will be involved in your healthcare team and have a multidisciplinary approach (1). I aim to establish what provider, either GYN or expert surgeon, will be a point of contact on that first visit.
2. Do they consider the whole body when treating your symptoms?
Endometriosis is known as a pelvic disease, but we know it is much more than that. Your physical therapist needs to tap into their education to evaluate and treat the whole body. The secondary effect of endo is often an upregulated nervous system. On the initial visit, it is typical that your physical therapist will look at movement patterns from your neck to your feet. Internal pelvic floor assessments are common but certainly do not need to happen on the first visit. Pelvic floor function is only one component in a much larger picture of your overall function. Your individual goals and comfort will dictate how much treatment involves pelvic floor treatment.
Advanced Treatments and education
Treatment involving the abdominal wall fascia, diaphragm, and viscera (organs) require additional advanced coursework compared to treating the pelvic floor. Therefore, you can ask them if they have taken additional coursework to treat the abdomen to get an idea of their experience. There is not one single treatment philosophy for the abdomen, but some courses focus on continuing education in this area. The most common that I am familiar with are The Barral Institute (2), Ramona Horton MPT, DPT (3), and Institute of Physical Art (4). Other courses involve manual nerve techniques such as Lumbar and Sacral Nerve Manual Assessment through the Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehab Institute (5). These are just a few of the many available resources your physical therapist may use to learn more after graduate school. Some pelvic physical therapists create their treatment tanks to teach one another these skillsets.
Treatment strategies that help regulate an upregulated nervous system may be part of your care. These strategies can look like gentle hands-on treatment, questions to help you process how you relate to your body, and creating mindfulness along with movement. The connection of how our nervous system interprets information from our body is complex. A physical therapist can be a valuable resource to help you better understand the pain response and the nervous system.
3. Do they practice trauma-informed care specifically related to healthcare trauma?
Trauma-informed care in physical therapy does not substitute mental health treatment. A trauma-informed approach concerning physical therapy means understanding the entirety of the patient’s experience and the effects of that experience. Medical trauma can have a lasting response on an individual’s well-being (6). We know that those with endo, on average, have a delayed diagnosis. This delay can lead to a complicated relationship with the medical providers. Many patients with endo are seeking out pelvic PT after years of seeing various specialists. These experiences with the medical system can create barriers to a patient feeling comfortable with a new provider.
For this reason, a trauma-informed approach to treatment is essential. Awareness of how these experiences may have impacted their patient is a critical portion of providing affirming care. You can ask your physical therapist about some processes that they use to create a safe environment. These processes should include consent before any treatment or touching, checking in with your emotions and body reaction during manual therapy, and providing adequate time to provide education throughout the session.
4. How much time will you have for a session?
Asking this question can ensure you have an idea of what to expect when going into your appointment. There is no magic number of minutes that will create a perfect appointment. However, the nature of endo being more complex means I prefer more time to establish a care plan. There are multiple factors to consider during the first evaluation. These factors include sexual health, daily function, bowel and bladder health, and personal goals. Having realistic expectations for each session is helpful to decrease additional medical trauma and find a therapist that fits your needs.
Patient care and human interaction are complex, and sometimes it takes time to establish a level of comfort with your PT. Every session of PT may not equal a breakthrough in pain. Retraining the nervous system takes time, especially when the body has been protecting itself due to chronic pain.
Ultimately, endo care is ideally a multidisciplinary approach. Your physical therapist can work closely with your gynecologist and other healthcare team members to find the best individual plan for you.
If you have more questions about pelvic physical therapy, reach out for more information.
Would you mind sharing with us what pleasant or unpleasant experiences you have had with your PT?
1. Agarwal SK, Foster WG, Groessl EJ. Rethinking endometriosis care: applying the chronic care model via a multidisciplinary program for the care of women with endometriosis. Int J Womens Health. 2019;11:405-410. Published 2019 Jul 23. doi:10.2147/IJWH.S207373
2. Jean-Pierre Barral, DO, MRO(F), RPT. The Barral Institute. Accessed September 1st, 2021. https://www.barralinstitute.com/
3. Ramona Horton, MPT, DPT. Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute. Accessed August 27th, 2021. https://hermanwallace.com/faculty/ramona-horton
4. Institute of Physical Art. 2015-2021. Accessed August 19th, 2021. https://instituteofphysicalart.com/
5. Nari Clemmons PT, PRPC. Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute. Accessed August 20th, 2021. https://hermanwallace.com/faculty/nari-clemons6. Michelle Flaum Hall and Scott E. Hall. When Treatment Becomes Trauma: Defining, Preventing, and Transforming Medical Trauma. American Counseling Association. March 24th, 2013. Accessed August 19th, 2021. https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas/by-year2/vistas-2013/docs/default-source/vistas/when-treatment-becomes-trauma-defining-preventing-