Throughout the lifespan, women’s bodies change. Pregnancy, childbirth, cancer, menopause, and/or the normal aging process can cause some women to experience conditions such as pelvic pain, back pain, reduced bladder control, altered sexual function, and/or weakening bones.
Although historically embarrassed to discuss these health issues, more and more women are now stepping out of their comfort zone to improve their health and wellness. In fact, specialty therapists at UPMC Centers for Rehab Services helped (treated) 13% more women for these conditions in 2021 than in 2020.
Treating Women of All Ages
The Women’s Health Physical Therapy program at UPMC Centers for Rehab Services (CRS), provides specialized physical therapy for women.
“We see women of all ages; my oldest patient right now is 97.” says Ashley Whitehead, PT, DPT, CLT-LANA, a senior physical therapist at CRS Pleasant Hills.
According to Whitehead, the most common reason adolescents and younger women seek help is for pelvic pain; older women with osteoporosis seek help for strength and stability; and women of various ages seek help for pain with intercourse (dyspareunia), “Pain with intimacy keeps women from being able to enjoy their sexuality,” Whitehead says. Physical therapists and physicians can work together to treat these conditions. Whitehead and her colleagues work closely with doctors and the patients pre- and post-surgery in order to assist the patient in achieving the highest level of function possible following those procedures. Pre-habilitation is important so that the patient can prepare their body for surgery and start the rehabilitative process as soon as possible.
The program’s therapists also treat women during the childbearing years for a variety of issues. During pregnancy, your center of gravity changes, which can cause low back pain; childbirth can weaken the pelvic muscles and result in urinary/fecal incontinence; and breastfeeding may lead to upper back pain. “I help a lot of women who come in with issues caused by musculoskeletal changes during pregnancy,” Whitehead says.
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Helping Women with Incontinence Issues
“Incontinence after childbirth represents a big sector of the women we see,” Whitehead says. “We really want women to know that it’s not something they just need to live with.” Urinary incontinence means you lose control of your bladder and leak urine with or without a specific trigger: urge incontinence is leakage with a sudden strong urge to urinate; stress incontinence is leakage with movements like coughing, running, or lifting; mixed urinary incontinence is when you experience both urge and stress incontinence.
Fecal incontinence is the loss of control over bowel movements. It’s often urge incontinence, which means the feeling of having to go comes on too quickly. Alternately, leakage of stool can occur after an incomplete bowel movement because sensation has been altered due to trauma, age, or medical interventions.
The pelvic floor muscles are integral in releasing urine and holding back stool; incontinence develops when these muscles are weakened or damaged which often happens in women during childbirth. As an aside, men can also experience incontinence and weak pelvic floor muscles, often from prostate surgery. Pelvic floor physical therapy can help with these conditions.
What to Expect
Women are often hesitant to discuss pelvic health issues and to seek help for such a private part of the body. Physical therapy for pelvic floor issues may require the therapist to work with muscles inside the pelvis; to help improve the comfort level of our patients, “We’ve created an environment where people feel comfortable talking about these things,” Whitehead says. “At the end of the day, these are muscles and ligaments, like any other muscles and ligaments.”
Always meeting/treating in a private treatment room, Whitehead first approaches a new patient by educating them about the likely cause(s) of their problems. She builds trust with her patients through discussing their therapy goals and strategies/techniques that will provide the best results. According to Whitehead, “Trust is integral when working physically with the pelvic region. If someone isn’t comfortable with internal therapy during a session, I’ll find another way to work with the patient.”
Averaging eight visits over a span of three months, Whitehead gives her patients exercises to do on their own while her treatments work toward helping them achieve their goals. Goals are personal – some women may want to avoid bathroom accidents, go for a run without leaking, get rid of pain and discomfort during daily life and/or during sex. It all depends on the individual.
Get In Touch
Learn more about the Women’s Health Physical Therapy Program, request a referral from your doctor, or contact us for assistance.
Whatever your therapy need – physical, occupational, or speech – UPMC Centers for Rehab Services can create a personalized treatment plan for you. We have more than 60 outpatient facilities throughout our communities, with convenient hours for your schedule. Our therapies follow the most up-to-date research for rehabilitation. We treat numerous conditions, from arthritis and tendinitis, to injuries and symptoms related to other medical conditions. Visit our website for more information.