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Sharmaine Johnson

Help and hope for pelvic pain

Sharmaine Johnson, of Winona, Minn., knows how debilitating chronic pain is. For six years she suffered silently from pelvic pain—pain that began after the birth of her son.

"It was constant, every day, all-day, nagging pain. I silently suffered from embarrassment because I didn't have good bladder control or bowel functions. I tried not to drink too much to assist in holding off on going to the bathroom because I knew it would cause me more pain. I found myself constantly thinking about the 'right time' to go to the bathroom. My bladder never fully emptied when I did finally decide it was safe to go," she recalls.

As difficult as it was to cope, as a single mother, Sharmaine pushed herself to go to work. "I spent a lot of time in the bathroom crying, just trying to hold it together. It's really lonely when you have pain in the pelvic area. People don't understand it like they do if you were to have back pain or unless they see some kind of physical scar. The only reason I kept going was because of God and my son," she says.

Sharmaine visited her primary care provider, a women's health provider and a specialist. She had countless office procedures and surgeries, endured painful treatments, took many different medications and injections, and also tried physical therapy but the pain persisted. Then one final second opinion led her to Donna Hoffman, MD, and Tiffany Calteaux, DPT, in the Center for Women at Gundersen Health System, where she was diagnosed with spastic pelvic floor syndrome, a type of pelvic floor muscle dysfunction.

One in three women suffers from pelvic floor dysfunction.

"It was actually nice to finally have someone tell me that I wasn't crazy…to tell me that the pain you're feeling is real. It was validation for me that someone was ready to get to the root of my pain," Sharmaine says.

"Pelvic floor dysfunction is a broad term used to describe pain and disruption of bladder, bowel and/or sexual function due to restrictions of the muscles and nerves of the pelvis. It's not exclusively a problem of women; men and children can be affected, too," says Tiffany, physical therapist and women's health clinical specialist, who is specially trained in pelvic floor physical therapy.

Pelvic floor dysfunction can stem from a previous surgery, injury, trauma, low back or hip pain, muscle imbalances or develop slowly over time due to repeated stress on the body. In Sharmaine's case, it was caused by an injury during child birth.

As part of her treatment plan, Dr. Hoffman recommended pelvic floor physical therapy, a cost-effective treatment option often resulting in less need for medication, more independence and better quality of life.

"At first, I wondered how I could possibly benefit from seeing another physical therapist, but pelvic floor physical therapy was different," says Sharmaine.

Tiffany helped Sharmaine learn how to relax her pelvic floor muscles and release the tension using biofeedback, manual therapy and a home exercise program.

The result, Sharmaine says, has been life-changing. "I can go to the bathroom like a normal person now. I've stopped taking medications for pain, inflammation and bladder control and instead take natural health and wellness supplements. I can play with my son and go to his after-school activities. I can do yoga and high-intensity workouts without pain. I participated in my first 5K last summer.

"Dr. Hoffman and Tiffany helped give me my life and my dignity back. They gave me the freedom to get healthy and believe in myself. I wanted to share my story so that others who are suffering know that there is hope and to encourage them not to give up."

Many people think that having incontinence or other pelvic symptoms are normal and will go away with time, especially as they age or after childbirth. "We want people to know there are things they can do to take control of their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Pelvic floor physical therapy is one of the options," says Tiffany.

Pelvic floor physical therapy is offered in La Crosse, Onalaska and Winona. Talk to your healthcare provider for a referral. For more information, visit gundersenhealth.org/pelvicfloor.

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