If our genes are the bullets and lifestyle factors the trigger, I’ve got a loaded gun and a hair trigger. Like most of the women in my family, I’ve experienced a long list of reproductive symptoms, and from puberty on, I’ve seen a lot of doctors. With half the world population experiencing a period at some point in their life, it would be reasonable to assume there would be a wide range of therapies to address my own painful and often debilitating period symptoms. But as I learned, there aren’t.

Insofar as modern medicine offers solutions, I’ve tried it all. From birth control pills and hormone supplementation to acupuncture, diet, and herbal remedies. I’ve been hospitalized three times for excruciating cramps, and multiple doctors have told me to “just have kids” to see if my symptoms of suspected endometriosis would go away.

My symptoms have waxed and waned, managed greatly by my lifestyle and diet, but have progressively gotten more intense over the years. So, I was surprised that it wasn’t until a frustrated, last attempt at managing my pain that physical therapy was suggested to me. Such a basic approach to pain turned out to be a huge missing link in my treatment. My holistic mentality never once considered the uterus as a muscle and cramps the result of continued stress and trauma. Mind blown.

How exactly does one stretch one’s pelvic muscles?

Flash forward to my first session. I was nervous and had no idea what I was in for except that it would incorporate aspects of physical therapy and my vagina. Would this be like a gynecologist appointment with me naked in stirrups? How exactly does one stretch one’s pelvic muscles? In the end, I remained fully dressed for my first session as my physical therapist did a full evaluation of my posture, gait, and alignment. She told me she was looking for external signs that might indicate tightness or strain on the internal muscles as well. I had many of these signs.

I was amazed. My therapist explained by creating a bicep curl. “When you make a muscle,” she said, “the muscle needs the full range of motion to be effective. You would fully straighten your elbow, then bend it all the way, in order get the muscles fullest potential.” She tightened her arm and her closed fist to meet her shoulder so that arm was still flexed but the elbow was completely bent and the forearm could rest on the upper arm. “Even though these muscles are still flexed and contracted, you could hold this for a long, long time. As for your pelvic floor, if you are constantly holding your pelvic muscles in a shortened, protected position, your are never letting your pelvic floor muscles fully relax, and therefore they are unable to function effectively, and in the process creating sustained muscle tension, unknowingly.”

Continued stress, physical or emotional, can be reflected in the body.

We all have muscle memory. We’ve all heard of holding emotional tension in certain areas of the body. Whether you believe in energetic medicine and healing or not, there is truth to this notion. Continued stress, physical or emotional, can be reflected in the body. Think of clenching of the jaw causing TMJ, muscles tightening around poor posture and scoliosis, scar tissue, or chronic aches and pains. When we have a trauma, our body remembers our response to it. When that same pain is repeated, over time our bodies create an almost automatic inflammatory response to it.

Like my physical therapist explained, if that tension is never released, when the contractions of cramps are felt, the already tense body tightens further and doesn’t ever truly release, contributing further to pain. A large part of physical therapy is actually retraining the brain and body to respond differently to this pain as the muscles, connective tissues, and fascia are also retrained and relaxed. In my case, not only was my pelvic floor never fully allowed to relax or release from my tension, my body had trained itself to rely on shallow chest breathing, instead of full diaphragmatic breath that engages and allows the pelvic floor to expand as well.

As the children’s song goes, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone, and so on, and and so it turned out that my physical therapy was not just focused on my pelvic floor, but extended to address other parts of my body that connect to the pelvic floor — like tight hamstrings or adductor muscles. These systems don’t exist uninfluenced by other systems. The way our uterus is held by other muscles and onto our skeleton, how we carry out our day to day emotionally, how we nourish our blood and cells — it’s all related.

Though I am still a constant work in progress, the greatest improvement to my chronic pain has been through pelvic physical therapy. This is why I am further frustrated that these forms of treatment are not more readily available or discussed. So, it is my hope that my own experiences, my frustrations and successes, will help other women like myself find a more holistic approach and long term solution to their chronic pain outside of pain pills and masking symptoms with birth control. In the end, we are all so different in how we experience any given issue, and our approach to our treatment should be as unique as the individual.

Alle Weil is a certified holistic nutritionist, wellness consultant, educator, and founder of Flora ex Machina, dedicated to a ‘back to the earth’ approach to health, educating and empowering readers by reviving traditional healing and culinary practices in a delicious and beautiful way. Alle lives and practices in Los Angeles, CA and specializes in creating sustainable wellness programs and nutrition therapies, addressing hidden food allergies, women’s health and imbalances, and mood-related disorders.