#PTonICE Daily Show – Monday, March 4th, 2024 – What is the role of PT in female fertility?

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, #ICEPelvic division leader Christina Prevett discusses female fertility, including what physical therapy interventions are not currently supported by research for use in assisting with conception but also offers some key ideas to come alongside this vulnerable population to assist them within the limits of our scope of practice.

Take a listen to learn how to better serve this population of patients & athletes or check out the full show notes on our blog at www.ptonice.com/blog.

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Hello everyone and welcome to the PT on Ice daily show. I’m trying to get YouTube up and running. I don’t know why it’s telling me that this isn’t available, but I am gonna give it another go. If you don’t know me, my name is Christina Prevett. I am one of our division leads for our pelvic division as well as our geriatric division. And today I wanted to talk to you all a little bit about our role in fertility. So we are working on our level two, finishing up our level two course content. And one of the areas, our level two course is talking about how to create a fitness forward approach to pelvic health in a variety of different conditions. And so one of those conditions is around fertility, infertility, birth control, that type of space. And I have thought, an astronomical amount about where our role is in fertility, fertility management, and infertility. And so to kind of give context to this, like it really has been in the last five or ten years where we have started to advocate for ourselves as a member of the obstetrical team, right? So we really advocate in pelvic health, especially with rates of pelvic floor dysfunction and pelvic injury that happen around the pregnancy and postpartum period, that we have a role to play from a rehab perspective when it comes to female health and male health in the fertility space potentially. And so we have kind of made this jump where we are now very well known for being in the obstetrical space, helping with birth prep, helping with reducing perennial trauma, rehabbing from perennial or abdominal trauma as a consequence of a C-section or a vaginal delivery. And so we really have etched our role in a wonderful way in the obstetrical space. And so it doesn’t really seem like that big of a leap for us to think about coming into the fertility space, right? Because it’s all kind of centered around the pelvis. It’s an area where there is a lot of misunderstanding. There’s a lot of grief. There’s a lot of trauma that happens. And so we are seeing more and more of our physical therapists and other allied health providers start advertising services in fertility.

And so Before I go into some of the research in this space and where we at ICE stand in this space, I want to tell you all a story about where this can go terribly wrong. So I owned a physiotherapy clinic and a gym up in Kingston, Ontario for five years. And I had a woman come in to see me and she was looking for a consult for the gym. Her husband was in the military. He had done multiple tours and they were having trouble conceiving. So they had done multiple rounds of IVF, neither of which had been successful. I think they had done two rounds and he was currently deployed and he was struggling with mental health stuff. He was struggling with PTSD. She was, as a consequence of the healing process, was also struggling with a lot of mental health and anxiety, trying to be that person for him. So it was a really complicated situation, their fertility journey. And so they were, she was coming in saying, you know, well, if I can get in better shape, then maybe it’s going to help this next round of IVF. And so I was talking about her history with exercise, and then I was talking about her history with rehab, just trying to get to see if, you know, she would want to come into one of our programs and what that program may be. And she told me that she was seeing another provider and was getting adjusted three times a week for fertility. And so I kind of asked her the situations and circumstances around that. And she said that, you know, I am willing to try anything to get pregnant. It’s what I want more than anything else. And so she’s like, I went to this provider and they did a x-ray of my entire back. And I was starting to have low back pain, which like infertility, trauma, mental health, baby that they want that they cannot have. Like her pain was focusing around her pelvis and her low back. And provider x-rayed the entire spine and said, oh, here it is. Here’s your infertility. It is at your neck and you have a issue at C5, C6, and there’s an innervation right there, right to the uterus. You’re going to get adjusted by me three times a week for six months. And I guarantee you the next time you have IVF, it’s going to be successful. And I have never raged internally in a conversation so much in my entire life. It was a really tough spot for me to be because I was a person that she had never met before. Then she was asking about gym-based services, did not even know that I was a physical therapist because that was not the role that I was playing in this interaction. And she was in such a vulnerable space that if I came in super hot and was like, that is not true, then I would have potentially severed a line of hope for her that she had developed, but oh my goodness, how unethical is it for you to make promises that you cannot keep? And so I tell this story to give the frame of reference that I think about when I make statements about where we lie with respect to our role in rehab.

So the first thing that we always have to think with this, and this is in any space where we are trying to kind of go into new markets, and I am not against being in new markets, but this population in particular is a very vulnerable population. This is a population where individuals are feeling like their body is failing, The emotional and mental load of fertility is high. The shame and guilt and spiraling and social context and people asking you if you’re gonna be having babies soon even though it is something you want more than anything else in the world and it is not happening. The feeling of your body failing you at something that you quote unquote should be able to do. These are all things that make us need to think very clearly about the statements and promises that we make as we consider niching into this space. The second filter of this is from a manual therapy perspective. We have no evidence that our manual therapy increases chances of conceiving. So we cannot say that we are changing the orientation of the uterus to make for a more hospitable environment. We cannot say that. It is not ethical for us to say that. One, because we have no evidence that there’s going to be any movement of really strong really anchored organs in our body where we are placing hands on people right like our evidence is that we are horrible at landmarking exactly what what muscle we are on we are not doing a hip flexor release and and changing trigger points in our muscles We are not able to really localize our manifs and we’re really interacting with the nervous system. So if we can’t even do that at the superficial musculoskeletal system, why do we think that our manual therapy is going to impact our organs? So we need to be very mindful about what we are doing. And so the first thing we have to filter is the ethics.

The second thing we have to recognize is that we are currently going into a space that does not have evidence for our manual therapy techniques to change our fertility. That is number two. That is not to say that this evidence will not develop. It is a new area, but we cannot say, if you come to see me, you’re more likely to get pregnant. We cannot say that. We can say that we are exploring different modalities and we can have lots of conversations about fertility. We are educated providers in the fertility space, but we need to be very clear with our communication about what we can promise to individuals because it is unethical for us to say that this is gonna happen. Three, there is a placebo effect of somebody taking care of you when you are in such a vulnerable space, right? There is one of the biggest and best things that we can do as rehab providers is that we are able to have space, have time to listen to our people and cater to and speak toward the emotional side of what they are going through. A lot of the interactions with our medical space when it comes to fertility are very much focused on the physiology of it, right? Because that is what they are trying to remove barriers for from a physiological perspective, whether it’s on the male or female side, and allow fertilization to occur in successful implantation. But we need to be very, very mindful. So to finish off this episode, what can we do? Where do we have evidence around a potential role in rehab. Okay, so in order for conception to happen, right, we need to have, on the female side, we have to have an egg that is released on a monthly basis, right, so we have to be ovulating. That egg has to travel into the fallopian tube. Sex needs to occur with ejaculation so that the sperm is meeting the egg in the fallopian tube. And then the fertilized egg needs to travel through the fallopian tube and embed into the uterus and have the hormonal environment, have the enrichment of the uterine walls in order for that implantation to be successful and maintained. Okay. So the first piece in our fertility is the ovulation space. And if you’ve been following our pelvic crew for a long period of time, you know that one of the areas around ovulation, and we are not medical providers, so we are not looking at their hormone levels. We are not seeing if luteinizing hormone is creating a estrogen surge that allows ovulation to take place. But we are one of those providers that oftentimes can catch relative energy deficiency in sport. So We can have conversations that individuals are amenorrheic to be a resource dealer and a primary care provider to refer on if we think that something is going on with their menstrual cycle that has to do with their nutrition or that they are not ovulating as a consequence of low energy availability. So from that perspective, if they’re not getting their period, like we may be that resource dealer to a registered dietitian or nutritionist that has a scope of practice that works with potential disordered eating, potential issues with fertility, and that has a more broad scope of practice to be able to speak to those levels, right? We could be referring to our obstetrician if individuals are thinking of conceiving in the next six months and they don’t have their period, let’s get them to get their doc to do blood work or let’s like get earlier on that process and then send that letter and say, you know, I’ve been treating this person for musculoskeletal issues. Like I am a little bit worried about relative energy deficiency in sport and we can make that connection. We can also educate on the menstrual cycle and what is required for fertility to take place, right? We can be talking about when our fertility windows are, right? We are not reproductively positive or we’re not able to have a fertilized egg at all parts of our cycle, right? Ovulation occurs between day 12 and day 14. So that window, usually between 11 and 15 days of your cycle is like your chance window of getting pregnant. So we can be educating on that. We have evidence for that. Medically, in our scope of practice, we can absolutely be talking about that physiology. We have a role in that space and we have the time to sit down with our people and talk about tracking your menstrual cycle and recognizing some of the signs that you might be ovulating, like changes in cervical mucus and body temperature and those types of things. The second piece where we have a role is that sex needs to be successful in that women are able to have penetrative intercourse and ejaculation needs to occur. And so I’m going to do an entire second episode on male fertility and male fertility factors and our role in male fertility, because fun fact, 30 to 50% of infertility cases are male factors. And yet all of our information is on female related fertility factors. And so in order for sex to be able to happen, individuals have to not have pain. and they need to be able to have penetrative intercourse. So here’s another area where our role can be quite massive, right? In really extreme cases of pelvic pain or vaginismus or vulvodynia, there are circumstances where the pain is so severe that individuals do artificial insemination or other assisted reproductive technologies because they are unable, without significant severe pain, to be able to have penetrative intercourse in order for ovulation or fertilization rather to occur. So we have a role in that space as well. And this is where our evidence is, right? So if individuals are having pain with intercourse or on that guarded high nervous system response, right? Parasympathetic tone is a very important part of our arousal response. then we can be interacting with that nervous system and we can be working on pain-centered modalities in order to try and allow individuals to be able to participate in intercourse in order for individuals to be able to successfully, hopefully conceive. Where some individuals, and this is gonna be long, so I’m gonna try not to rant too much, where we’re taking a bit too much of a stretch for where we are at in our opinion, is around the hypertonicity and what the hypertonicity of the pelvic floor is doing from a hospitable environment for fertility and saying, well, your body might not be ready. Let’s talk about our vagina and our pelvic floor muscles and our cervix. Our pelvic floor muscles are here. Our cervix is here at the top. So once sperm has passed your cervix or has gotten through that, and you, I’m not saying that your penis goes past your cervix, but what I’m saying is when you are having that ejaculation, that the sperm is going to go up towards the cervix. Once you have passed that pelvic floor layer, the pelvic floor has nothing to do with our fertility, right? So that hypertonicity piece, likely has no impact outside of pain responses on successful fertilization of an egg, right? Because that sperm is gonna go up towards the cervix and sneak through to try and be able to ovulate that egg or to be able to fertilize that egg like really quickly and the muscles of the pelvic floor are not impeding sperm from getting there. So again, kind of coming full circle, like our role is in education and pain management from where our evidence stands right now. And if we are going into these areas of gray, we need to be mindful of our language. And then we need to really think critically about what do we truly think is going on? And is some of my manual therapy interacting with that nervous system, bringing that stress response down, getting us into more parasympathetic tone, or am I moving an organ? That’s where we need to be critical and we need to be honest with our people. We talk about all the time with diastasis recti rehab that I cannot make any promises about what your belly looks like at rest because all of our interventions are when your belly is contracted. I can get you stronger. I’m going to be able to have more function. I’m going to be able to say this, this, and this, but I cannot promise you that your belly is going to look different or that it is going to look the way it did before pregnancy, nor would I really expect it to. I am very clear with that communication. We need to be mindful and do the same thing when we are thinking about our role in fertility. All right. That was a bit of a rant. I’m so sorry. I went a little bit long, but… This is really important.

If you want to talk more about fertility, that is in our level two course, which means that you’ll have to take our level one online course. Our next cohort, which sold out a couple of weeks ago, it starts today, which means that our next cohort is starting the week of April 30th. So if you are interested, let us know. Our next cohort of level two that’s gonna dive into all this literature is in August. So take that level one, get into that level two, and I am so excited to be able to deep dive into these spaces a little bit more. All right, have a great week, everybody. Talk soon.

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