A physiatrist’s view on pelvic pain: an interview with Allyson Shrikande, MD

Below is the transcript of an interview with Allyson Shrikhande, MD and Michelle Dela Rosa, PT.

Michelle: I’m here with Dr. Allyson Shrikande, founder of Pelvic Rehabilitation Medicine in New York and recently Hoboken, NJ. Thank you for speaking with me.

A lot of people ask us about the practice of physiatry. Some people know how it’s pain management, but they don’t really know how it’s different than seeing their gynecologist or their urologist in the way they would treat their pelvic pain. So, can you give me a general overview to describe physiatry and how it treats pelvic pain differently than their gynecologist or their urologist.

Allyson: Sure, thank you so much for having me, Michelle, this is great. For a physiatrist treating pelvic pain, we help the other doctors treat the muscles, the nerves, and the joints of the pelvis in a non-operative approach.

Michelle: How would that be different–can you give me examples of treatments that people may not see with their doctor that they’re already seeing?

Allyson: Essentially, we want to look at it from more of a sports medicine approach, seeing if the pelvic pain is coming from the pelvic floor musculature. Are the muscles in spasm and potentially irritating the nerves of the pelvis, causing some pain? So that’s where we would come in when we’re evaluating patients. Is there a pelvic floor muscle spasm, which we call pelvic floor hypertonia and can cause pain in patients. And we’re really trying to evaluate why this is happening and is there anything from the sports medicine standpoint where we can identify a cause and help to find a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Michelle: I was lucky enough to be able to shadow you for an afternoon and I noticed that while you were treating patients, you were interested in not just recognizing that there was spasm, but like you said, what else could be contributing to it. So what other things do you look for that could be contributing to pelvic spasm?

Allyson: From the musculoskeletal or the sports medicine standpoint, you want to see if there’s anything going on in the lumbar spine that can cause pelvic floor dysfunction. Or is there anything going on in the sacroiliac joint? Or you want to consider the hips–are the hips working, functioning well? And is there any underlying pathology in the hips as well as what we call the pubic symphysis, which is the joint in the anterior aspect of the pelvis. In addition, is there anything going on from the other specialties as well that could be causing this secondary guarding of the pelvic floor muscles? So is there a gynecological reason if it’s a female, or urological reason if you’re male or female, or maybe from the GI system, etc? But you really want to say, ‘Is there anything else going on here that’s causing these muscles to go into this guarding state where it’s really not letting go very well?’

Michelle: This is interesting because so many of my patients say they’ve gotten a diagnosis of pelvic spasm, but they didn’t really get checked out. As a physiatrist, you are doing a pelvic exam?

Allyson: When you see us, we would do a full exam–again looking at your back, your hips, etc–but we do end the exam evaluating your pelvic floor both externally and internally. So we do an internal exam. I always tell our patients that we’re not gynecologists, so we’re really looking at the muscles and distribution of the nerves internally. But we would do an internal exam and it does not require a speculum. It would be similar to an internal exam of a pelvic floor physical therapist–we really look at the tone of the muscles, the strength, and the lift of the pelvic floor, and follow the nerve distribution internally to see if there’s any increased sensitivity or pain internally.

Michelle: Wonderful, we have such a growing population of men coming to see us for pelvic pain as well. And they’re always curious how your exam would be different or how you would be able to help them because they’re hearing that a lot of these treatments are for women. Would they be able to access you and what would you be able to offer them?

Allyson: We see a lot of men here at Pelvic Rehabilitation Medicine, about equal amounts of men and women. From the muscle, nerve and joint standpoint, the anatomy is actually the same. For us, evaluating men and women, it is a similar approach. For the men, we do look at your lumbar spine, hips, and abdomen, any concern for underlying hernias that could have been missed. But then we do an internal pelvic floor exam as well–it would be internal rectally, also evaluating the muscle’s tone and lift and any nerve tenderness internally. With men it would be a similar approach trying to see if there is any possible underlying cause for pelvic floor guarding. And then it’s a full body treatment approach where we really can–we call it down-regulate–or calm down the nerves, of both the central and peripheral nervous system and increase blood flow to your muscles, and get the muscles longer and stronger to rehabilitate the pelvic floor.

Michelle: Many of our patients have been seeing multiple providers. And I noticed that in your practice, you seem to be a gateway to many of the other providers, sort of–coordinating care. Is that part of your model of care and how would you say your practice runs differently than other practices that treat pelvic pain?

Allyson: Definitely. We see ourselves as the quarterback here, because as rehabilitation doctors, we really are trained from the beginning to look at the whole body and the interplay between multiple organ systems. So quite often, we are talking to a patient, and in our minds, thinking if there’s any other specialist that we would need to bring into the picture to help us get this patient better. We work closely with specialists who are excellent in treating the pelvic pain from their angle. But we do see ourselves as the quarterback kind of sending as needed, as well as working closely with pelvic floor physical therapy, to figure out how to get our patients better and what other specialty is needed to calm down their muscles and their nerves.

Michelle: Some of our patients have been getting injections for their pelvic floor and they’ve been given an option for steroid. I know that you have other options, and also, can you touch upon the imaging that you use to guide you through the injections–if injections are necessary.

Allyson: The way we do our injections, or treatments as we like to say…everything is external, nothing is internal. So it’s all external, along the sling of the pelvic floor, and they’re ultrasound guided. Patients call them their butt injections, that’s kind of what it feels like–it’s not internal, it’s external. The idea behind the guidance is like internal eyes so you can see where you’re going. And in addition, it allows us to do a hydrodissection technique, where we can really open up the fascial planes and create space where there is restriction, particularly where the nerves want to flow. What we’re using to supplement for a steroid, which is derived from plants. The main ingredient is arnica–a lot of people have heard of arnica cream like topical arnica–but this is an injectable form of arnica and in combination with echinacea. So it’s a nice way to promote healing in addition to decreasing inflammation, which is why we love it. I really used it more in my plastic surgery rotation. Post-operatively we would give it out after a surgery so that patients wouldn’t become as bruised and swollen. It would decrease inflammation and promote a faster healing topically. So that’s where the idea kind of came from.

Michelle: I know that one of the positions that you hold is that you’re the Chair of the Medical Education Committee for the International Pelvic Pain Society. How do you feel that the position helps to shape what you do in your practice and helps shape how pelvic medicine is moving for the future?

Allyson: We’re actually lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing, intelligent, pelvic health practitioners who constantly push me to really think about things and learn more. The mission of what we do is educate the future of pelvic health from the medical practitioner standpoint–from both the residency program and urology, as well as gynecology and physiatry and any pelvic floor physical therapist who’s had training there–just to try and increase awareness for the people who are training, that the pelvic floor itself is its own distinct entity. And although it does not show up in imaging, we really should not ignore it, particularly when the workup is normal and the patient symptoms persist. So we’re really trying to raise awareness and at an earlier stage in physician’s medical careers, in hopes of getting all our patients recognition earlier and treatment earlier. Because we really believe that is the key–early recognition and early treatment, to squashing it early and getting patients better.

Michelle: What’s the range of people that you see in terms of how long patients have had pelvic pain for prior to seeing you? Is there a range?

Allyson: It’s getting better by the day. But still at this point, the average is six months to 25/30 years worth of symptoms. Even six months is rarest. It’s really along the lines of 1.5 years to 25 years.

Michelle: Hmm, yeah. So, both of us are working on that.

Allyson: We have to work together.