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Digestive Health: How Physical Therapy Can Help

constipation bloating diarrhea

Abdominal stretches and abdominal colon massages can help improve the function of the digestive system and relieve occasional pain or discomfort. Image credits: Alexey Poprotskiy/

Physical therapy can help digestive health. Whether you are experiencing constipation, diarrhea, bloating, nausea, abdominal discomfort, acid reflux and/ or fecal leakage, a knowledgeable physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor and gastrointestinal health can help you overcome your symptoms.

Understanding the digestive system

The digestive system includes the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine, and anus. Other visceral organs, including your liver, gallbladder and pancreas, play a role in making digestive juices and enzymes to help digest your food.

Throughout the abdominal wall, several layers of fascia, or sheath-like tissue, wrap and encase each organ, separating each organ from nearby structures, such as muscles and nerves. Tight, dehydrated or stiff fascia changes the pressure or tension on the organs, impacting their function. Fascia tightness can be due to a prior abdominal or pelvic surgery, such as a laparoscopic surgery due to endometriosis or a perineal tear from labor/delivery.

Physical therapists use a variety of treatments, including myofascial release, visceral mobilization, therapeutic exercises, stretches, massage and breathing techniques, to address your digestive dysfunctions.

Treatment for Gastrointestinal and Pelvic Floor dysfunction

Following are techniques used to treat digestive dysfunction.

Myofascial and visceral mobilization techniques help soften the fascia, creating space for the organs to work normally and increase blood flow to heal the tissues. Specific techniques include releasing the ileocecal valve to ease small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth and gastroesophageal traction to help acid reflux.

Therapeutic exercises and stretches that target the abdominal, back and pelvic floor muscles encourage smooth colon motility and ensure the pelvic floor muscles remain relaxed during a bowel movement for complete elimination. Your physical therapist also performs an external and internal pelvic floor assessment via the vagina or rectum to better understand your discomfort and symptoms.

Abdominal colon massages facilitate movement of stool in the colon, especially if you have very infrequent bowel movements or hard stools. Abdominal pulsing is also a great exercise!

Breathing techniques stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the digestive functions in the body.

Education on optimal eating habits, including chewing your food and being present with your meals.

Physical therapists also instruct their clients to complete a bowel, food, exercise and sleep diary for several consecutive days to understand how lifestyle, stress and sleep play a role in their digestive health. The diary helps physical therapists take note of bowel habits, including frequency of bowel movements and ability to completely eliminate.

In addition to incorporating hands-on treatment and providing a home exercise program, your physical therapist also will educate you on healthy bowel habits, the importance of a morning bowel routine and sleep hygiene to facilitate healthy digestive function.

Getting help

Physical therapy has a lot of surprising benefits, and many of them are for the betterment of your digestive health. If you are experiencing gut issues and haven’t found relief with medications or change in diet, physical therapy may be your missing piece of the puzzle.

In addition to seeing a physical therapist, be sure to add other knowledgeable providers, including acupuncturists, dietitians, massage therapists and functional medicine nutritionists, to your health-care team.

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