What does a women’s health physio do?
Have you put a health issue like incontinence or pelvic pain in the too-hard basket? A women’s health physio could set you on a path to better health.
How can a women’s health physio help?
Women’s bodies are capable of amazing things, but they can also develop female-specific troubles like core-strength concerns, post-pregnancy problems or menopause issues. The good news is there are dedicated physiotherapists skilled in women’s health to help you.
Women’s health physios treat conditions sometimes brought on by pregnancy and felt post-birth, like pelvic floor weakness and abdominal separation (when the growing uterus causes the parallel muscles of your stomach to separate), incontinence, pelvic pain – caused by endometriosis, for example – and prolapse, which is caused by a stretching of the muscles and ligaments that support the pelvic organs.
They can also help women feeling pain during sex and help manage symptoms during menopause, like vaginal dryness, as well as supporting transgender patients who are transitioning.
After completing a tertiary qualification in physiotherapy, a women’s health physio does further training – either a postgraduate university course or through a private education provider – to specifically treat women’s health concerns, explains Catherine Willis, national chair of the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s Women’s, Men’s and Pelvic Health Group.
Seeing a women’s health physio
So, what happens at an appointment with a women’s health physio? After you fill out some paperwork about your symptoms and history, you’ll be taken into a private consulting room by your physiotherapist.
“With these particular health concerns, because they are very sensitive matters, you should be in a private, soundproof room with a door that can be closed rather than a cubicle with a curtain around it,” Catherine explains.
During your consultation, your physiotherapist will question you more deeply about your symptoms. Does urinary incontinence affect you most during exercise? Is pelvic pain an issue during menstruation? How often do you experience painful sex?
“You’ll be asked some sensitive questions about your sex life, your periods, and your bladder and bowel function,” says Catherine. “Some of us can find that quite confronting, but usually the physios will do it in a sensitive way and explain the importance of getting that background history.”
In most cases there will also be a physical assessment. This might include feeling stomach muscles, performing an internal check of the vagina to assess the pelvic floor muscles, or looking at the perineum and checking internally for prolapse, Catherine explains.
“An ultrasound machine might also be used to look at a patient’s bladder or assess their abdominal muscles,” she says. “And we often use biofeedback machines to get information about a patient’s pelvic floor muscles.” All of this helps your physio gain a clearer picture of your health.
Feeling comfortable with a women’s health physio
Problems like incontinence and painful sex can be uncomfortable topics to talk about with health professionals, and physical assessments can feel unpleasant and awkward, but some issues might be more common than you think.
For example, one in three women will experience a leaky bladder, according to the Continence Foundation of Australia, yet some women find talking about the problem so daunting and put off seeking help.
“These areas are often taboo topics,” says Catherine. “They’re problems that are associated with some embarrassment and sensitivity, and often women don’t even talk to their GP about their problems.”
But she hopes this barrier can be broken down. Knowing your physiotherapist is experienced in women’s health issues means you can get the help you need and reassurance that your situation is well understood.
Time for treatment
Like most physiotherapy treatment, a series of appointments will likely be required as well as hands-on treatment, home exercises and progress monitoring.
Catherine says your women’s health physio will work closely with your doctor, recommending a more specialised type of ultrasound if needed, medication to be prescribed, or requesting a referral to a medical specialist, like a gynaecologist, colorectal surgeon or pain specialist.
Whatever your age or stage of life, if you’re concerned about a female health issue, seeking help from a women’s health physio can be one of the best ways to take control of your health and improve your quality of life.
Strengthening the pelvic floor
Like other muscles in the body, your pelvic floor muscles can be strengthened with exercise.
Experts recommend women exercise their pelvic floor every day to prevent weakness and improve strength.
Try to incorporate this pelvic floor exercise into your daily life:
- Sit, stand, lie on your back or get down on your hands and knees.
- Contract your muscles in the same way you would to stop yourself from passing wind or to ‘hold on’ from passing urine. You should feel your pelvic floor muscles ‘lift up’. Hold for three to five seconds, working up to 10 seconds as your muscles get stronger.
- Release. You should feel a definite ‘letting go’ as your pelvic floor muscles relax. Repeat up to 10 times, and aim to complete three sets a day in different positions — sitting, standing, lying on the floor or on your hands and knees.
If you’re dealing with any of the above symptoms, a women’s health physio can help. Depending on your level of cover and annual limits, you could get 100% back on your first physiotherapy session through providers in our No-Gap network. Call us on 13 13 34 to find out more.
Words by Karen Burge
This article first appeared in the March 2021 edition of Health Agenda magazine.
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