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Symptoms and Treatments in Pelvic Pain: Using Modern Terms to Explain Nervous System Arousal

Pelvic Pain Symptoms and Treatments: Using Modern Terms to Explain Nervous System Arousal

Airplane mode, in fact, is an excellent metaphor in terms of describing the pelvic pain symptoms and treatments of the pelvic pain sufferer.

Using the term “airplane mode” to explain the nervous system of the pelvic pain sufferer.

“Airplane mode” consists of two elements:

  1. Setting aside enough sacrosanct, uninterrupted time and space for Paradoxical Relaxation sessions (which we discuss as carving out 2-3 hours a day);
  2. Doing the mental practice of Paradoxical Relaxation during this uninterrupted time and space that allows the nervous system to “down regulate”, reduce its frenetic activity, and cease prompting the squirting of adrenaline into the bloodstream with every thought that worsens the chronic pelvic floor contraction and the feeding of the tension-anxiety-pain-protective guarding cycle.


The meaning of airplane mode

To be sure, the technological revolution of the past 20 years has given us not only the ability to be electronically connected at all times but has also provided a new vocabulary to describe our new behavioral world of texting, instant messaging, emailing, and twittering. For example, the term airplane mode is a new concept that has come about to address the idea of temporarily disabling our communication devices from the information and connectivity superhighway. As we know, airplane mode is used when someone is on an airplane or other situation where sending or receiving communications and data are disallowed. In airplane mode, our phone or tablet assumes an unresponsive state where it is not vulnerable to the dings and rings of incoming calls, texts, emails, and other data.

Indeed, when your phone is on airplane mode, you essentially resume the situation humankind was in before the advent of cellular communication systems. You are alone, and unless someone actually engages you in person, you are not vulnerable to being disturbed or prompted. The situation is not unlike the old context of placing a “do not disturb” sign on your hotel room door – you are creating an environment where you cannot be disturbed by the world nor it by you.

A frozen, locked-up computer

Anyone who has ever worked with a computer has experienced the frustrating situation of the computer “freezing up” or “locking up” and having to be manually re-set. Many times we intuitively attribute the freeze to requiring the computer to do too much too quickly. Overwhelmed, it simply stops working properly and ceases to fulfill our processing demands. One perspective is that the computer has simply gotten too far away from its default modes, and the complexity of processing so many demands in a matter of seconds has interfered with basic functions. Interestingly, despite all of the advances in technology, a standard method for fixing the freeze is to manually reset the computer by holding down the power button. By turning the power off and then back on again, we reset the original default modes. This almost always results in the computer resuming its proper functioning.

An analogy can be drawn between our intuition about why computers freeze up and why Colin Powell’s observation that “things always look better in the morning” is intuitively correct. It is also why we have a sense that a good night’s sleep makes everything better. Once locked up elements of body and mind come back into full function. This is also true of going away on vacation. After several days on the beach, away from the demands of business and life, our system is renewed.

With regard to the symptoms and treatments of chronic pelvic pain, a person experiences a similar overwhelm to that of the frozen, locked-up computer. Too many tasks, stresses, demands, and pressures have accumulated over time and the body has found itself in a distant place from its homeostatic, healthy, default mode. In response to a hectic life, the muscles of the pelvic region have engaged in a pattern of chronic, unyielding protective guarding to cope. These pelvic muscles, normally pain-free and able to relax and contract easily, are rigid and chronically contracted and dysfunctional.

Just like the number of programs running on a computer when it freezes up, pelvic pain patients cannot ignore the circumstances of their lives. In our patients, we often see that a vicious, self-feeding cycle has developed in the patient that looks like this:

Even in the face of significant pelvic pain and muscle dysfunction, fear, and anxiety, many of our patients continue to meet the demands in their lives without being able to reset. Typically each day the patient tightens up the pelvic muscles as a coping mechanism to the pressures of life. As the pelvic muscles get more restricted and painful, function deteriorates. In many patients, the pelvic muscles become so contracted that basic functions such as urination, defecation, sitting, and sex become very difficult and painful.

Resetting the default mode of the pelvis by resetting the nervous system

In order to restore the nervous system and the pelvic floor that it controls to a healthy default mode, we propose that the body requires a regular “airplane mode”. This frees the nervous system from stress, demands, pressure, expectations, and requirements. You can have a safe zone protected from disturbance or stimulation. The pelvic floor needs time to ease painful hypertonus and myofascial restriction and be free of any stressful or taxing input from the nervous system. By practicing long hours of airplane mode through the use of our method of Paradoxical Relaxation, the quieted nervous system allows the pelvic floor to “let down its guard” and heal from the effects of the chronically upregulated and aroused nervous system. Through this practice (and along with our trigger point physical therapy regimen), the pelvic muscles are led back to their natural default mode of supple and functional myofascial tissue.

Man as a response animal

Indeed, we can look at the human being as a “response” organism, constantly adjusting to our various issues. Most important is the survival instinct, and while we no longer face the reality of wild animals or food scavenging, the nervous system equates many non-survival issues to survival. This is especially true when the nervous system is hypersensitive to stress in the form of an email, text, or task at work.

We have all experienced that domino effect of catastrophic thinking where one largely insignificant email can be turned into a disastrous conclusion by a fearful mind. When catastrophizing is a common event in someone’s thinking, the pelvic muscles typically contract and often out of a person’s awareness. In the 6th edition of our book, A Headache in the Pelvis, we discuss the remarkable story of a middle-aged woman who was in the middle of an internal myofascial trigger point session with an experienced physical therapist. While the physical therapist had a finger inside her vagina, pressing on an internal trigger point, the woman began to talk about a politician she loathed. Our colleague, the physical therapist, reported that as her patient expressed rage about this politician, her pelvic muscles tightened around our colleague’s finger to a point where our colleague was afraid her finger would be injured. When our colleague said to her patient, “can you feel that?”, referring to the astonishing tightening of her pelvic floor muscles, her patient said back to her “Feel what?” Our colleague’s patient tightened her pelvic muscles ferociously and didn’t even know it!

When you switch to airplane mode and step beyond the world’s ability to stimulate you, you are actually saying: “You can rest. All is calm, everything is okay.” You are giving yourself permission to relax. We tell our patients that this is the environment we want to create for the practice of Paradoxical Relaxation, one of the key methods of the Wise-Anderson Protocol. Spending enough time in this airplane mode, while doing Paradoxical Relaxation (and in conjunction with our physical therapy protocol), may be the most powerful way to break the cycles of protective muscle guarding and to assume a posture of the deepest and most profound relaxation. The muscle tension physiologically returns to a normal, homeostatic state and the organism can take a much-needed break from survival responses.

The problem of treating pelvic pain as solely a physical problem

The vast majority of articles written in medical literature about the kind of pelvic pain we treat focuses solely on the physical dimensions of this condition and the traditional treatment of drugs and procedures, injections, nerve blocks, and sometimes surgery. Recently, there has been interest in the psychological/behavioral dimension of pelvic pain, discussing patients who suffer from trauma, anxiety, or other forms of emotional disturbance. And yet these discussions usually only address what we consider to be paltry and not commensurate with the enormity of the problem being addressed, believing that small doses of cognitive therapy, mindfulness meditation or breathing exercises mixed in with traditional treatments could be helpful. We see these overtures as merely “half-measures”. In our experience with thousands of patients over the years, these minor interventions have had little effect on long-standing, chronic symptoms. While we welcome discussions of the psychological/behavioral aspects of chronic pelvic pain, and believe that cognitive therapy and mindfulness are legitimate and important treatments for certain conditions, our work with patients who have suffered from chronic pelvic pain for many, many years has led us to believe that only more profound nervous system intervention has a chance of any real traction.

The engine of muscle based pelvic pain is chronic anxiety and an upregulated nervous system

In our two decades of treating this condition, we see that the engine of muscle related pelvic pain is an upregulated nervous system acting on a chronically shortened and trigger pointed, myofascially restricted pelvis. What we mean by “upregulated nervous system” is this that the human computer – the mind and central nervous system – is running much faster and processing more stimuli than is healthy. We propose that the pelvic floor is in dire need of a break, in dire need of airplane mode for long periods of time every day. All of the wisdom and spiritual traditions in the world have a concept of “Sabbath” where rest is not only allowed but understood as absolutely critical for health and well-being.

We see pelvic pain as a functional disorder. It generates a self-feeding cycle of tension and the resulting formation of pain. Treating the muscles with a specific method of trigger point physical therapy is essential. However, our experience has shown us that the great perpetuating factor of this condition, indeed the foundation of it, is an upregulated nervous system generating unhealthy amounts of pelvic floor tension. Pelvic floor tension that is constant and unrelenting and from which there is no adequate amount of airplane mode, no Sabbath. This reflects our current societal predicament of a 24/7 society where few if any days are held sacrosanct, where there is little or no time off, and no airplane mode. Patients who commit wholeheartedly to reducing their nervous arousal and anxiety do far better than patients simply focusing on the physical state of their pelvic muscles.

It is essential to commit enough time to airplane mode

We have found that most of our patients require a good 2-3 hours of airplane mode daily in order to create the environment of healing necessary for the rehabilitation of the pelvic muscles. If you are “on” all day, the sore pelvis is continually being contracted and irritated by the avalanche of stimuli agitating the nervous system. The researchers Gevirtz and Hubbard have shown that even the slightest increase in nervous arousal is immediately reflected in increased electrical activity of painful trigger points. Their studies on electromyographic monitoring of their patients’ trigger points demonstrate this dramatically.

Symptoms and treatments in pelvic pain: 2-3 hours of paradoxical relaxation per day

It is important to say that airplane mode is an inner state as well as an outer space where stimuli from the outside do not intrude. Paradoxical Relaxation is airplane mode for the mind and body and involves engaging the will to practice doing nothing, practicing effortlessness, of not judging, guarding, tightening, resisting, trying, accomplishing, or any other activity that requires effort and nervous system upregulation. For many of our patients, we have observed that it is not enough to practice Paradoxical Relaxation for short, half hour or even one hour lessons. Symptoms and treatments of pelvic pain at small intervals, in patients who are chronically hyper-aroused whether they realize it or not, simply do not allow enough time on airplane mode to quiet down the roaring nervous system. A significant number of our patients do far better with 2-3 hours of Paradoxical Relaxation daily to release the pelvic muscles from their chronic guarding and contraction.  In airplane mode you are free, and you can take a sigh of relief. Your body is in a position to reset the default mode of the nervous system that then permits the pelvic floor muscles to return to normal.

In our Paradoxical Relaxation lessons, these instructions are reiterated every 30 seconds or so to help our patients let go of any effort and rest solely in sensation. In the state of resting attention in sensation, the nervous system is put in airplane mode and the pelvic floor can release.

On its face, a daily practice of 2-3 hours of uninterrupted time to do Paradoxical Relaxation may seem daunting. Most pelvic pain patients are busy. Sparing any time can be a challenge. Because of this, we always say that our prescription is not for everyone. Indeed, our patient feedback reminds us that the patients who do the best with our protocol are the ones who decide that they will do whatever it takes to end their suffering.

Truth be told, if one’s pelvic pain doesn’t hurt enough, if the dysfunction isn’t bad enough, if there is a way to decently cope and avoid facing the music of a full measure treatment for pelvic pain, then contemplating 2-3 hours of airplane mode Paradoxical Relaxation a day is not going to be seriously considered, let alone completed. For those, however, who are ready to do whatever it takes, airplane mode will be done without hesitation, and once done, enjoyed beyond measure as the pelvic floor muscles are placed in an extended environment of healing.