Hidden in plain sight is an oxymoron: a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear together in a phrase yet both are true. When something is hidden you can’t see it, but when something is in plain sight, you can. How peculiar! Yet in my view, this figure of speech clearly illustrates the lack of understanding about pelvic floor dysfunction throughout the history of the treatment of pelvic pain. I am using this figure of speech in this podcast to emphasize the point that, what lies at the center of the resolution of what is diagnosed as prostatitis, chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain is, at the same time, both obvious and often completely disregarded.
To explain: There is no professional nor patient dispute or controversy about the fact that when someone diagnosed with prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome, the tissue in and around the pelvic floor is painful when pressed on. In fact, this is one of the major criteria we use to determine eligibility in our program; whether we can find tenderness, pain, and/or discomfort in palpating certain key areas in and around the pelvic floor. We have found over the years that palpation related pain in and around the pelvis floor are always associated with complaints of pelvic floor dysfunction.
Said simply, when men diagnosed with prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome, or with men and women diagnosed with pelvic floor dysfunction, the tissue inside the pelvis is painful or tender upon palpation. This is one of the hallmarks of a trigger point; that is to say, when someone has a trigger point and you press on it, it is exquisitely tender. When you press on an area that is not painful or tender at all, there is no trigger point there.
While there have been some exceptions, which is beyond the scope of this discussion, when we have been able to help a patient heal the soreness and irritation in the pelvic floor and related muscles, with most patients we have seen, there is huge improvement or resolution of symptoms. So again, clearly, the goal of any treatment needs to be to resolve the soreness of the pelvic muscles. How do you do this?
Freeing the pelvic floor and related areas of pain and soreness happens to be the essential goal of the Wise-Anderson Protocol. A number of years ago, we published an article in the Clinical Journal of Pain that documents the significant reduction of pelvic floor tissue pain after 6 months. The entire thrust of our program is to help resolve pelvic floor pain. To do this requires a physical and behavioral methodology.
If resolving the pain in the pelvic floor-related tissue is the goal, then the very simple question that will occur to all patients becomes, ‘How do you get this painful tissue not to be painful?’ I will repeat, ‘How do you get this painful tissue, that can occur from the belly button all the way down to the knees, in the front, back and sides of the body, or throughout this area of the body, to stop being painful?’
I’d like to talk about how the tissue inside the pelvic floor is different from other bodily tissue
The miracle of the healing mechanism of the body is that painful tissue heals. If you have a sore, irritated arm or leg, in the right circumstances this tissue heals. While there are differences, painful tissue inside and outside the pelvic floor associated with pelvic floor pain is no different from other tissue in the body capable of healing? The tissue inside the pelvic floor is sensitive. Tissue inside the vagina or anus or inside the pelvic floor is covered with a mucosal membrane and generally more sensitive than, for instance, the muscles in your arm or leg. Certain pelvic tissue is also connected with specialized nerves in order to cooperate with other parts of the body and respond to other parts of the body involved in urination, defecation, sexual activity and exercise.
For instance, the muscles of the anal canal are normally closed to allow us to remain continent and when a neurological signal is sent from the rectum above the anal canal indicating that stool has distended or expanded the rectum, the anal canal relaxes to permit the stool to pass through, and we feel the urge to have a bowel movement.
The urinary sphincter, which is a continuation of the detrusor muscle, is smooth muscle, and is normally closed enabling us to remain continent. When the bladder stretches as urine collects in it, at a certain point the signal is sent to the urinary sphincter to relax and we feel the urge to urinate. The muscles of the pelvic floor, particularly in men, contract every second when a certain kind of stimulation occurs that we know as orgasm. Other muscle groups in the body do not have these neurologic interconnections. These are some of the ways the muscles in and around the pelvic floor are different from other muscles.
How the pelvic tissue is the same as in other muscles
The muscles of the urogenital tract and anorectal area all tighten and relax like other muscles in the body do. As with other muscles, these muscles also can develop painful knots that form in them called trigger points. Trigger points in and around the pelvic floor (as with trigger points in other muscles) can refer sensation to places remote from them, so that where pain is felt is often not where the source of the pain is.
If there is an injury or irritation in the muscles in and around the pelvic floor, does this require different circumstances and treatments in order to heal? Any muscle that’s sore, irritated, or injured, tends not to heal properly if it is stressed, unduly squeezed, infected, unclean or having to deal with a significant reduction of blood flow among other factors. We want to avoid aggravating and stressing any part of the body that is sore, irritated, or painful. There is no controversy here.
The peculiar circumstance of the pelvic floor during pelvic pain continually irritates and inhibits the healing of the tissue
Once sore pelvic tissue forms in the pelvic floor, there is a reflex in the tissue itself to tighten against its own pain. That is why often people with pelvic pain feel like they’re clenching down in their pelvis all day. There is a reflex to tighten against what is sore, painful or feels unusual in the pelvic floor. Once this soreness in the pelvic floor tissue is initiated and trigger points form, this area becomes hypersensitive to the stimulations of anxiety, sitting, defecation (sometimes people have post-bowel movement or post-urinary pain), sexual activity and orgasm, and the general stresses of life. In other words, when someone has pelvic pain, a cycle that we have called the pelvic pain cycle begins and seems to take on a life of its own. This cycle stops the tissue hourly and daily (even during sleep) from healing up the way other tissue in the body that is irritated can heal.
The Wise-Anderson Protocol’s answer to what is hidden in plain sight
Our program is devoted to training our patients to loosen the contracted tissue that has inhibited blood flow and increased pain, using a specialized self-treatment program of internal and external physical therapy (with our Trigger Point Genie and FDA-approved Internal Trigger Point Wand). It is not well understood that myofascial trigger point release internally and externally in the pelvic floor has only a temporary effect. Doing myofascial trigger point release inside and outside the pelvic floor temporarily, I stress temporarily loosens the tissue.
Pelvic floor physical therapy is not like freeing a rusting nut from a rusty bolt using WD-40. Physical therapy intervention for pelvic pain is essential in our view, but it is modest and usually short term in its effect. When it is sore and irritated, the tissue typically tightens back up after the physical therapy intervention. We have had patients who would drive many hours to see someone for myofascial trigger point release, only to have the treatment undone on the drive home. At Stanford we were among the first to introduce pelvic floor physical therapy for men in the middle 1990’s and I believe we currently are among the best at training our patients how to do it expertly themselves. Training our patients to do internal and external physical therapy is a central part of our program. Even expert physical therapy, done every other day as we recommend is not enough to help heal pelvic floor pain. Unless the tissue is given a chance while in its loosened state to undergo the body’s mechanisms that heal muscle soreness, the pelvic contraction and irritation will tend to reassert itself.
Cooperating with the body’s healing apparatus is the secret to healing pelvic pain that has been hidden in plain sight
Thinking that simply loosening the tissue physically is the answer to pelvic floor dysfunction is a misunderstanding that pervades conventional understanding about treating pelvic pain. Often, when doctors (who typically know little about myofascial trigger point release) can’t help their patients with their pelvic pain, they will simply refer them to a physical therapist somehow thinking that physical therapy will somehow take away the pelvic pain. This is a wrong understanding in my view. Yes, physical therapy is essential in the resolution of pelvic pain, but only when done frequently enough and used in conjunction with a method that provides the tissue with an environment in which the body’s mechanism of muscle-healing can take place. Simply applying physical therapy techniques to sore pelvic tissue without a central emphasis on the healing of the tissue is like cleaning up spilled water from a leaky faucet, instead of fixing the leak in the faucet itself.
Our program focuses on supporting the natural healing mechanisms of the body to restore the painful pelvic tissue to a state that it was in before it became sore, painful, and caught in the pelvic pain cycle. The body’s ability to heal sore tissue is the secret that is hidden in plain sight.
In our view, any treatment that aims to resolve pelvic pain must indeed first regularly loosen the tissue with skillful myofascial trigger point release, but this must be done in conjunction with cooperating and becoming friends with the healing mechanisms of the body that heal sore tissue in and around the pelvis (or sore muscle tissue in any other part of the body).
The method we use is called Extended Paradoxical Relaxation, described extensively in our book A Headache in the Pelvis. Relaxing the body when one is in pain and anxious is not simple and most relaxation methods do not in any way address this circumstance. We spend many hours in training our patients who are in pain and anxious how to do Extended Paradoxical Relaxation particularly in dealing with the difficult emotional circumstance of dealing with the anxiety, pain, and general emotional distress that pelvic pain patients generally find themselves in. In using this approach, I am clear that the sore and painful tissue in the pelvis has the best chance of healing and the pain and symptoms going away.